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States should take notes on Iowa's mapping policies

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | FEBRUARY 09, 2012 7:20 AM

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Partisanship is detrimental to an effective democracy. Political district-mapping, or gerrymandering, can be used as a mechanism to minimize the effect of such political polarity. States should look no further than Iowa's mapping restrictions for an admirable precedent.

There are few images in American politics more powerful than that of powerful men, shrouded in a haze of cigar smoke, brokering deals as far from sunlight as possible. What is interesting, however, is that whether you view these men as crooked largely depends on whether you voted for them or their bosses.

Christopher Anderson and Yuliva Tverdova of Brigham Young University make this point in their paper "Corruption, Political Allegiances, and Attitudes Toward Government in Contemporary Democracies," in which the scholarly duo show that the perception of corruption diminishes as party allegiance intensifies.

This allegiance bias does not, however, weigh equally in all cases of questionable conduct. For example, most Americans consider partisan gerrymandering to be a political carcinogen — yet it persists despite broad public disapproval.

Thirty-sex of 50 states in the United States still rely on inherently partisan bodies, such as state legislators, to redraw their congressional district lines every 10 years — threatening the foundation of our representative democracy. Luckily, states such as Iowa have established a sound precedent to minimize the potential of gerrymandering, and should serve as an example to the rest of the nation.

"Iowa remains a hub of competitive swing districts because of its nonpartisan approach to drawing districts," said University of Iowa political-science Associate Professor Tim Hagle.

The federal court-system is an invaluable backstop protecting the representative nature of our legislative bodies, but there is no reason why this nation should risk even the smallest chance of voters being disenfranchised by partisan mapping. This is especially valid considering very simple institutional rule changes restricting this already exist.

For decades, the state of Iowa has abided by a handful of rules that have nearly eradicated any measurable risk of gerrymandering. Iowa relies on a five-member nonpartisan commission. This commission is only permitted to consider four factors when drawing district lines — population, contiguity, compactness, and existing boundaries. Perhaps more importantly, Iowa law forbids the use of demographic data, previous election results, or registered voter rolls. These simple rules make it exceedingly difficult and costly to try to redraw district lines in a way that might favor one partisan bloc over another.

Not only does this fend off the risk of disenfranchisement, it fosters more competitive elections. Professor Hagel made just this point when discussing the value of the Iowa model.

"Because incumbents are not drawn into safe districts, retirements are more commonplace," he said. "This offers opportunities for new blood at both the state and the national level. Potential candidates are more likely to run for office if it does not entail running against a safe incumbent."

There are a wide variety of reasons to find the practice of gerrymandering objectionable. For example, many often cite gerrymandering as a primary driver behind the increase in partisan gridlock. However, while there is little doubt that gerrymandering contributes to polarization, there is good reason to think that the degree to which gerrymandering is blamed is overblown. This conclusion can be reached by only looking at the Senate: Senate lines are state lines and thus cannot be gerrymandered. Yet, few rational observers would argue that the Senate is the paragon of political harmony. So, we need to look elsewhere to grasp the risks posed by gerrymandering.

For a prime example of the real and demonstrable risks posed by gerrymandering one need go no further than the recent United States Supreme Court case, Perry v. Perez. Since the last census was taken, Texas's population grew by 4.3 million people, and minorities represented 90 percent of that population gain. The Republican-controlled Legislature in Texas, however, gerrymandered Texas's districts to produce one minority-dominated district and three districts that heavily favored Republicans.

Numerous plaintiffs filed suits in an attempt to block imposition of the newly redrawn map. Since then, the Republican map has been thrown out in federal court, dealt with in the Supreme Court, and is now once again being handled by the federal judges in San Antonio.

As the Texas case shows, the dangers of gerrymandering are real. Forget gerrymandering as the primary driver of polarization. Think of it instead as an unacceptable threat to the representative nature of our democracy.

There is no need to reinvent the wheel. States such Iowa have already done all of the work by providing a framework for other states to follow. It is about time that the 36 states that have simply chosen to allow this dangerous practice to continue to take notice.


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