DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Iowa residents figure they're immune from the bare–knuckles, once–a–decade redistricting fights of other states, where incumbents use the process to solidify their re–election chances while parties scramble for any advantage.
But in this rural Midwestern state, politically relevant on the national level mostly for hosting the first caucuses of each presidential election, redistricting is less about politics and more about nonpartisan fairness.
That could be about to change.
For the first time in two decades, Iowa is losing a seat in Congress because population growth has been heavier elsewhere. That, combined with what some experts say is a national trend toward transparency, could present the biggest challenge yet to a redistricting system enacted in 1980 that allows three nonpartisan staffers to draw the lines.
"That's going to be a more potentially controversial decision, getting rid of one seat and moving other seats around to swallow up territory that is lost," said Bruce Cain, a political science professor at the University of California–Berkeley . "It's going to be a more severe test of the system than if Iowa was adding a seat or staying the same."
While the state lost a U.S. House seat once before with its current nonpartisan system in place, Cain said the political climate was less contentious in 1991 when the Legislature accepted the first congressional map presented by the panel of an attorney and two geographers.
Although Iowa is the only state where a completely nonpartisan panel redraws the lines, others have tried their own variation of taking the process out of the hands of state lawmakers. These panels still include political appointees but aim to make sure one party doesn't have complete control.
In California, voters approved a 2008 initiative removing the process from the Legislature after previous gerrymandering of political boundaries left the state with oddly shaped districts and little turnover between the parties. For the first time this year, a 14–member citizens panel with representatives from all parties — even the smaller ones — will handle the task of drawing congressional boundaries.
Arizona enters its second round of redistricting using a five–member commission made up of four citizens appointed by legislative leaders from both parties. Those four then choose the fifth member. In the past, the panel has included two Republicans, two Democrats and one independent.
And while the Legislature still has control of the process in Florida, voters there approved two constitutional amendments last November prohibiting the drawing of districts to favor incumbents or one party. Even with those new rules, there is much room for interpretation — and court challenges.
Other states have considered changing the redistricting system without much success.
In Indiana, Todd Rokita — now a member of Congress — was an outspoken advocate of banning political data or voting patterns during the map–drawing process when he was that state's secretary of state. During a 2009 speech to the Indianapolis Rotary Club, he called the state "the wild west of redistricting," complaining that the only rule governing the process is that districts have to be "contiguous" — and there's little clarification about what that means.
But Rokita's proposal got little traction in the Legislature, and now he represents a congressional district that resembles a disjointed array of Lego blocks, spanning from the state's northwest corner to south central Indiana. His office declined to make the congressman available for an interview but released a brief statement saying his position on redistricting hasn't changed.
According to the National Council of State Legislatures, 37 states rely on their legislatures for drawing maps while 13 use some sort of separate commission. Of those, Iowa's is the most detached from politics, said Morgan Cullen, an NCSL policy analyst.
"It's completely unique to Iowa and a lot of other people look to it as a model," Cullen said.
Three of Iowa's five congressional districts are currently represented by Democrats, so if they lose a seat they also would lose their majority in the state delegation. This week, the Census is releasing local population numbers for the state to begin the process.
Sam Roecker, spokesman for the Iowa Democratic Party, said it's too early to speculate on which seat will be eliminated.
"We just have to wait and see what the map is and take it from there," Roecker said.
House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, R–Hiawatha, said Iowa's process doesn't allow the process to become "consumed" by partisan politics.
"If the objective is to create a wholly partisan model where one party controls it than this system is not designed to support that," Paulsen said.
Even in Iowa, the final maps must ultimately be approved by the Legislature once the panel's work is finished, but little political posturing has occurred over the past three decades. Cain, the Berkeley professor, said the process isn't "completely antiseptic," but it's close.
It wouldn't work most places, he said, because Iowa "lacks the kind of racial, economic, ethnic and regional diversity" of larger states on the coasts or in the South.
"If you tried to impose something like that in California, the various interest groups would go ballistic because they don't trust bureaucrats to do this," Cain said.
Iowa's system was enacted after the state Supreme Court rejected maps drawn my lawmakers in 1970.
Ed Cook, the attorney who will be involved in redrawing the map, said Iowa's method "provides for a fairly efficient way of resolving redistricting." He said the agency expects to submit its initial proposal to the Legislature by April 1 and that it will not discuss possible scenarios before then.
Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, D– Council Bluffs, said the fairness in Iowa's system is evident by turnover at the Statehouse in elections following redistricting.
"The deck is not stacked by the way people draw the boundaries," he said.