In the far from perfect world of politics, there’s a place that in one respect is as near to perfection as anyone could expect.
The state legislature redistricts itself, yet both parties accept the outcomes as fair, the resulting elections are unusually competitive and the courts don’t have to get involved. Gerrymandering is for the history books, not the current events pages
That’s obviously the extreme opposite of what happens in Tallahassee, Florida’s capital of confusion, chaos and conspiracy.
The model state is Iowa, home of the world’s most overrated political caucuses and the most respected redistricting system.
Like every other state, Iowa is required to remap its congressional and legislative districts after every decennial federal census so as to keep the populations as equal, or nearly equal, as possible.
In states such as Florida, this is done under the control of the majority party, which uses its power to strengthen itself at the minority’s expense. That’s if they don’t get caught slyly but shamelessly gerrymandering like the Florida Senate did.
California, New Jersey, Arizona, Montana, Idaho, Hawaii and Washington have independent commissions to carry out both their congressional and legislative redistricting process. There are mixed opinions as to how truly independent these commissions are.
Six other states let their legislatures redistrict Congress but have independent commissions to keep the lawmakers from rigging their state constituencies.
Iowa is unlike any of the others. The Legislature and governor have the last word on both sets of plans, but – this is important – they do not have the first word.
There, the map-drawing is the job of highly skilled and highly professional people, demographers and cartographers usually, who work for the state’s Legislative Services Agency. There are strict standards against gerrymandering for the sake of a party, an incumbent, or a potential candidate.
A bipartisan commission is appointed every 10 years but only to hold hearings and give opinions on what the legislative experts propose.
The Legislature can vote those plans down, as it has on several occasions, but can’t amend them. If one is approved, the experts come up with another.
If the Legislature isn’t on board after three plans, the state Supreme Court takes over. But the court hasn’t had to do that because no one has appealed.
The Legislature enacted this system in 1981 out of dissatisfaction with a court-ordered redistricting during the 1970s.
The Iowa model draws rare praise from FairVote: The Center for Voting and Democracy for being “driven by criteria that doesn’t include protection of incumbents of partisan gain.”
In 2011, Iowa had to give up one of its five seats in the U.S. House of Representatives because of population gains elsewhere. Such a situation is about the worst in any redistricting playbook, but Iowa pulled it off. The plan put two Republican incumbents in the same district and two Democratic incumbents in another, and created one without an incumbent.
Even so, FairVote regretted that the plan did not call for proportional voting in a so-called super district, but that would have been beyond the scope of both the Iowa law and a federal statute mandating single-member districts.
Iowa’s system works as well as it does because both parties trust the Legislative Services Agency to be fair, professional and nonpartisan.
It’s appointed by an agency called the Legislative Council, composed primarily of the leadership from both House and Senate.
How do they achieve the trust factor?
Ed Cook, a senior legal counsel with the Legislative Services Agency and the lead lawyer in the redistricting process, explained it in an e-mail to me.
“While the statute indicates that the agency is nonpartisan, what ensures that the agency remains nonpartisan is the institutional acceptance of legislative leadership that it is in their interests to have a professional, nonpartisan legal and fiscal staff,” he said.
“Iowa is a ‘purple’ state and party control of the legislature is generally not a given, often being split, and has changed back and forth over time …
“In any event, Iowa’s process provides that the legislature and governor retain ultimate veto authority over the adoption of any proposed redistricting plan.”
The trust factor he described is notably absent in Tallahassee, where it is hard to envision such a reform taking root.
Florida ought to be a “purple” state, given its swing status in presidential elections and that Democrats often poll more votes than Republicans for the Legislature and Congress. Owing to rampant gerrymandering, however, the GOP has disproportionate majorities in the Legislature and in the Congressional delegation. Neither party in Tallahassee has ever perceived fair districting to be in its best interests, and with their current advantage the Republicans surely don’t see it that way.
But given the squeals of pain and outrage since the Florida Supreme Court tossed the congressional scheme, it would behoove them to consider the Iowa model. Otherwise, there may be people who would eagerly sponsor an initiative campaign to take redistricting out of the Legislature’s hands altogether.
There was a poignant moment a couple of weeks ago when Democratic legislators held a press conference to plead for an independent commission. It brought to mind how they ignored the Republicans who were begging for one 40 years ago. After voting tides shifted, the Democrats have repented at leisure.
But the lesson is this: The tides do shift eventually. The Republicans should take Iowa’s example to heart while there’s still time.
Martin Dyckman is a retired associate editor of the St. Petersburg Times. He lives in Asheville, North Carolina. Column courtesy of Context Florida.