Features

Squaring a salamander

Politics | How one state learned to take the politicking out of redistricting

Issue: "Autumn books," Oct. 7, 2006

DES MOINES- It's about time," sighed long-time Republican activist Gerry Salmon when he heard last June that the U.S. Supreme Court had approved most of a controversial congressional redistricting plan in Texas. "Now it's our turn," Salmon crowed softly.

"And just how long do you expect our turn to last?" asked Salmon's friend and fellow activist, Ginny Fost. "Easy come, easy go, I say."

More and more American voters may be embracing Fost's cynicism about the whole cycle of reshaping and reapportioning congressional districts every 10 years to reflect shifting population patterns. To many, it's nothing but a huge game of power (and sometimes race-based) politics.

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In Texas, of course, the controversial plan's impact had reversed a long-time 18-14 edge in the number of House districts controlled by Democrats, producing-at least for the time being-a 17-15 majority for Republicans. Democrats predictably called "Foul!" just as Republicans had been complaining for years before. But with the U.S. Supreme Court, for the most part, giving its stamp of approval to the new plan, there was little Texas Democrats could do except to wait for a shift in their fortunes.

During their wait, such disgruntled Democrats might consider joining disgruntled Republicans from North Carolina's 12th congressional district (or disgruntled folks from anywhere in the United States who have suffered redistricting nightmares) for a day or two here in Des Moines, Iowa. They should head straight for the northeast corner of the basement of Iowa's very-ancient-looking Capitol building, and ask for the office of Ed Cook.

There they should ask Cook just how it is that Iowa has said goodbye to all decennial debates about redistricting. How was it in 2001 that the reshaping of Iowa's congressional districts was done virtually free of partisan rancor? And 10 years earlier, in 1991? And in 1981 as well?

All this got its start, Cook will tell you, when the U.S. Supreme Court responded in 1962 to a disgruntled citizen of Tennessee by ruling that states are not free, willy-nilly, to draw the lines of congressional districts however they please. Indeed, throughout the United States, such arbitrariness had become commonplace-with the result that there were wide population variations among districts, even within one state. That, said the high court, had to come to an end. And if the state legislatures didn't get it right, the court said, watch out; the courts might just jump in and do it for them.

In most states, the court's ruling (and others on the same subject) led to endless legislative wrangling-including the 2003 debate in Texas that actually sent the Democratic caucus into exile across the Oklahoma state line for several days.

Experiencing some of that animosity themselves during the 1960s and '70s, Iowa legislators decided to look for a better way. They turned to what was called the "Legislative Services Agency" right there in their own building-an obscure nonpartisan unit (it has a counterpart in most state capitals) whose dozen or so members have a regular day-by-day assignment to research and craft legislative proposals into appropriate legal language. LSA was asked to design and implement a redistricting plan that all sides would see as fair and trouble-free.

The best test of their success is that the Iowa approach is now viewed nationwide as a model of how reapportionment ought to happen. Experts point to four specific criteria used by the Iowa LSA to achieve that standing:

Compactness. When districts are revised every 10 years, those in charge of the process are required to think literally in terms of squares, rectangles, and hexagons-but never in terms of gangly salamanders or other strange-shaped, strung out creatures. Models to avoid are recent districts from North Carolina and Texas.

Respect for existing subdivisions. When lines are redrawn, counties can't be split between new districts. Neither can cities and towns. Such rules keep politicians from playing games with their constituencies.

Population. Each new district must have a population just like all the others-with no more than a 1 percent variable.

Contiguity. Each resulting district must be of a single piece. Any areas that meet only at a point at their corners are not considered "contiguous."

Just as important as those four requirements are some critical prohibitions. By law, the LSA is not permitted to use any political considerations. It may not use voting records or data having to do with any incumbent. It may not seek to augment or dilute the voting strength of any language or racial minority group.

Based on those standards, the LSA scurries-just as soon as results of the census have been received every 10 years-to create its proposed new map. That proposal goes immediately to the Iowa legislature (typically in the late winter or early spring) for an up-or-down vote. No amendments are permitted. If the proposal is rejected, the LSA gets a second crack at its assignment-and once again the legislature votes yes or no. Only if a third effort is required does the legislature have the prerogative to amend. But that has not happened yet in the 35 years the system has been in place.

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