For those who closely watch the once-per-decade redrawing of Iowa's political boundaries, what happened last week was precedent-setting.
Ed Cook, the senior legal counsel for the Iowa Legislative Services Agency, said the first proposed maps won't be ready by the deadline in the Iowa Constitution for lawmakers to approve new legislative districts.
What does that mean?
It means Iowa's redistricting process is in uncharted territory.
We're not aware of any other time that the Iowa Supreme Court has been handed the task of overseeing the redrawing of Iowa's legislative boundaries, which is what the Constitution now demands.
For a state that is a model for the fair and balanced drawing of political boundaries, this is unsettling.
It's not that we don't trust the state Supreme Court. But Iowa’s system of redistricting is a touchstone, a rock of reliability in a world where so much seems in turmoil; that it now is the subject of uncertainty is an unfortunate worry.
This isn’t completely unexpected. When the federal government said it wouldn’t have the necessary Census data until late summer, lawmakers and judges began contemplating what might happen.
In April, the state Supreme Court issued a statement, saying it would "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."
That sounds somewhat reassuring.
Indeed, some legislators have taken the court’s statement to mean that not much will change.
We hope they're right. Unfortunately, the high court has refused to answer follow up questions about how this would work.
Iowa’s unique system of redrawing political boundaries is successful in large part because of the constraints put in the law and the fact that much of the heavy lifting is centered in a non-partisan agency. Politicians in Iowa aren’t permitted to do the kind of, well, tinkering that is done in so many other states. (Yes, we’re looking at our neighbors in Illinois, but also many other states, such as Texas.)
In fact, gerrymandering across the country has been so pervasive that it has distorted Statehouse and congressional delegations to the point that it has yielded the much-quoted saying that lawmakers tend to pick their constituents, rather than the other way around. (Iowa's constitutional deadline, by the way, does not apply to the redrawing of congressional boundaries.)
Unlike other states, in Iowa, politicians aren’t allowed to direct the map drawing and, when the boundaries are presented to them, they aren’t allowed the chance to amend them. It’s an up or down vote.
Our unique system is why every 10 years, when redistricting comes around, the people of Iowa can breathe a little easier than those in many other states. But this year, it's different.
Again, it’s not that we mistrust the state Supreme Court. But the silence in the face of questioning isn't encouraging.
We hope that, when the technical work is done, we will see a process much like we have seen the previous years; that the redistricting advisory commission holds its public hearings with robust participation — and that, when that is done, lawmakers take on the role they've traditionally played. No more, no less.
We live in a world that has been turned upside down — not to mention a state that has strayed the last several years from its more moderate political traditions. It would be a shame if this pillar of Iowa's good government heritage is weakened.