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Nonpartisanship rears its head

BY KIRSTEN JACOBSEN | APRIL 04, 2011 7:20 AM

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The gerrymander is a curious species of amphibian that emerges only once a decade to feed upon unsuspecting voters. Known to be easily swayed by political interests, these fantastically contorted creatures play an integral role in every state’s evolving political ecosystem.

So on March 31, when the Legislative Services Agency released its first-draft proposal of new state political districts to fit the national caucus results, I naturally expected a veritable swarm of gerrymanders to slither across our state. Five representative districts and only four chairs? Start the music, and watch the political interests — er, gerrymanders — duke it out.

But in an unexpected, turn of events, this season Iowa was curiously spared from egregious amphibian influx: The nonpartisan drafting agency actually produced a map that would pit two incumbent national representatives against two other representatives, each of the same party. While it’s unfortunate that our state is losing influence in Washington, D. C., the proposed map should be equally appealing to politicians on both sides.

“Gerrymandering,” as defined by the Center for Voting and Democracy, has allowed “legislators and their political cronies … to choose their voters before voters have had the opportunity to choose them.” By drawing out contorted districts that lump voters of one party or another into their borders, these misshapen blocs can be manipulated to favor certain politicians or classes and races.

Oh, nonpartisan redistricting is a many-splendored thing.

(Well, not that anything is ever acceptable to Rep. Steve King, who is now up against fellow Republican Rep. Tom Latham for western Iowa. “Of all the ways you could draw a map, it’s hard to configure one that would put us in the same district, but they managed to do that,” King told IowaPolitics.com, somehow missing the fact that redistricting regularly draws two representatives into one district.)

State-level legislators didn’t quite escape the pestilent invasion, however. House Republicans currently enjoy a lead 20 members strong, yet in the proposed map, only three districts with Democratic incumbents are being conglomerated as compared with nine districts where Republican representatives must square off in the next election.

While this may sound unbalanced prima facie, it is laudable that the agency took pains to create only one district in which a representative from each party would run against the other for re-election.

The state Senate would potentially encounter a similar situation, also adapting to the creation of seven new districts with no incumbent whatsoever. This has injected a much-needed boost into both respective parties.

While the Temporary Redistricting Advisory Commission will begin gathering public input next week, the state Legislature and Gov. Terry Branstad are not slated to hold an initial vote until April 14 at earliest. Should approval not be granted from the House, Senate, or Branstad, a second map will be drawn by the Legislative Services Agency, and the process will start again.

But it seems like the agency has done a fairly even-handed (not to mention gerrymander-free) job already. With a shrinking population comes less need for government representation; inevitably, some lawmakers will be cut. In the end, some will win, some will lose, and some will occupy districts shaped like tail-less giraffes sitting in rowboats.

“The bottom line is that the Iowa process for redistricting is the most fair of any in the country,” Rep. Dave Loebsack, D-Iowa, told The Daily Iowan on April 1. And he may just be right: according to the Rose Institute of State and Local Government, which runs the informational site RedistrictinginAmerica.org, Iowa is one of only nine states that use apolitical institutes to create new districts. (A grand total of only 26 states use nonpartisan agencies to redistrict — if anything, we should thank our lucky stars we’re not Texas or Wisconsin.)

And given that Democratic and Republican lawmakers have acknowledged a revamped version would undoubtedly be lacking, I say we embrace the gerrymander-free year. Maybe in 2021 the state can pass legislation making it legal to hunt them.


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