Iowa has never been particularly effective at tooting its own horn. We Iowans are naturally self-deprecating.
Maybe that’s why Iowa has never been terribly successful at touting the fact that this state holds the cure to one form of political cancer that has long plagued our country: partisan gerrymandering. It’s time to change that, now that the U.S. Supreme Court has again refused to lift a finger to address an obvious source of dysfunction in our democracy.
Gerrymandering is one way politicians manage to stay in power no matter how ineffective or corrupt they may be. This abuse of political power deserves at least part of the blame for extreme polarization in Congress. Every 10 years, after the Census, the boundaries of political districts have to be redrawn to account for population changes. In most states, the party in power manipulates the redistricting process to benefit its incumbents and to minimize the minority party’s chances to gain seats.
In Wisconsin, Republicans used computer models and voting data after 2010 to redraw district lines for its General Assembly. They were so spectacularly successful that Democrats have failed to win more than 39 of 99 seats in the past three elections, “even when they won a majority of the votes cast statewide for Assembly candidates,” according to The New York Times.
Clean-government advocates were hoping the Supreme Court would use this case to offer some guidance for how far race-based or partisan gerrymandering can go to disadvantage minority voters. Instead, the court punted the case back to district court on technical grounds, suggesting this is a problem for states to manage.
The good news is that Iowa has managed this problem and has done so extremely well since 1980. That’s when the Iowa Legislature adopted the nonpartisan redistricting process that has been used ever since. The law puts nonpartisan legislative staff in charge of drawing district maps for legislative and congressional districts. The maps, by law, cannot consider partisan factors or the effect on officeholders. The primary consideration is creating districts that are as close to equal in population as possible, while respecting political subdivisions and maintaining a reasonably compact area.
Nonpartisan redistricting tends to function as Iowa’s form of term limits. It helps create open seats, providing opportunity for fresh blood, while gerrymandering does the opposite. It has not prevented single-party dominance in recent years, but it does maintain the minority party’s ability to compete and potentially regain control. That’s healthy for the process, no matter which party you prefer.
It keeps both sides accountable to voters. We need more of that in Congress, not less. As Iowans, we can’t afford to keep this secret to ourselves.