DES MOINES — Iowa state lawmakers may not need a special session later this year for the state to accomplish the redrawing of political boundaries for the next 10 years, a Democratic legislative leader said Tuesday.
Sen. Zach Wahls, leader of the minority Senate Democrats from Coralville, said Tuesday that Republican leaders may be reading into a statement made by the Iowa Supreme Court about the redistricting process, which is in constitutional jeopardy because of the lack of federal census data.
Wahls made the comments Tuesday during a virtual legislative leadership forum with the Iowa Capitol Press Association.
“We don’t have a lot of answers about any possible special session, and it’s not even clear to me that we’re going to have one, simply because there’s a lot of ambiguity around the redistricting process and what the court is going to do if they wind up quarterbacking the process,” Wahls said.
Every 10 years, states redraw their political boundaries, using federal census data. In Iowa, the state’s nonpartisan legal agency draws map proposals, which are then voted up or down by state lawmakers. That process must be completed by September 15, according to the state constitution.
This year, the required census data may not be available in time to meet that deadline, thanks to pandemic-related delays with the federal census.
The Iowa Supreme Court in April issued a statement describing what it might do in the case the state is not able to meet the constitutional deadline for redistricting.
“If the general assembly is not able to meet the constitutional deadline, the supreme court tentatively plans to meet its constitutional responsibility by implementing a process which permits, to the extent possible, the redistricting framework presently set forth in Iowa Code chapter 42 to proceed after September 15,” the court’s statement said. “Under such a process, the supreme court would ‘cause the state to be apportioned into senatorial and representative districts to comply with the requirements of the constitution prior to December 31.’”
Republican legislative leaders have interpreted that statement to mean the court will allow the state agency and state lawmakers to conduct the redistricting process as they normally would, and give them until December 31 to complete the process.
“The Supreme Court statement was a little vague, but how I read that is they, like almost everyone, agrees that Iowa has a fair and one of the best redistricting processes in the country, and they think we should use it. And so if it gets past that constitutional … deadline, it sounds to me like they want us to, even if it’s later than that date, use the current process as outlined in Chapter 42 of the Iowa Code,” Sen. Jack Whitver said during an appearance on Iowa PBS’s “Iowa Press.”
“That is the process that has been in place for about 50 years and it seems to me that the court wants to try to use that process if at all possible,” Whitver added.
But Wahls on Tuesday said Republicans may be reading into the court’s statement, and that he took it only literally.
“The court has not said, ‘Hey, Legislature, get ready to come back for a special session in September or October.’ So until the court says that’s going to be a part of the process, I just don’t think that anybody is well served by creating an expectation that that will happen, simply because the court itself hasn’t done that,” Wahls said. “Unless we somehow get the data sooner than anybody’s expecting at this point, it would likely be the court that is the final arbiter in how all that is going to shake out.”
The census and redistricting delays could have an impact on the 2022 elections, as candidates in some cases have to wait to know in which statehouse and Congressional districts they live.