Political Districting the Iowa Way

The way congressional districts are set up around the country is troubling to many observers. But in Iowa they handle things a little differently.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

Have you ever wondered why no matter who you vote for, your congressman almost always stays the same? Even in 2006, considered a political earthquake, only seven percent of the nation's congressional districts switched from one party to other. That's because almost all members of Congress are elected to seats that are virtually safe.

Where do safe seats come from? After every census, states redraw their congressional and legislative districts. The idea is to adopt the populationships to preserve one person, one vote. However, in almost all states, it's legislators who draw the map and they work the system to create safe seats for themselves and their colleagues. They also try to preserve or extend their party's power.

In California with 53 districts, only one district has changed parties in the last three-election cycles. That's one party switch in 159 chances. One state has broken with that system. Iowa does it differently and has for nearly 30 years. In Iowa, a nonpartisan state agency and a computer draw the lines. The aim is to create reasonable legislative and congressional districts with equal populations. Ed Cook is legal counsel to the Iowa Legislative Services Agency.

Mr. ED COOK (Legal Counsel, Iowa Legislative Services Agency): It's kind of, like, juggling. You want to get as close on population without the districts looking too bad.

WERTHEIMER: Bad being?

Mr. COOK: Being like a noodle or an amoeba, or oddly shaped, basically.

WERTHEIMER: Ed Cook's agency is a creature of the legislature. It helps members put their bills into legal language, it runs their computer system, and once a decade, it redraws the political map of Iowa under strict rules. The law says districts cannot divide towns or counties and cannot take into account the voting patterns of the area or even where their current representative lives. And if they leave the current rep out of his district, the people doing the drawing don't even know it until they send them out to the legislature and hear the squawking on the evening news. Gary Rudicil is a senior computer systems analyst for the agency.

Mr. GARY RUDICIL (Senior Computer Systems Analyst, Iowa Legislative Services Agency): When I'm working on a plan, I'm so focused on population, just the total population number. That's all I see.

WERTHEIMER: Unlike other states, Iowa cannot design a district around the powerful lawmaker. Ed Cook says sometimes a newer member doesn't really understand that in this system, his district can move right up from under him.

Mr. COOK: His little spot where his residence is of a state is going to be in a district but the rest of the district could be completely different.

WERTHEIMER: That happened to former Congressman Jim Leach, a Republican, who woke up one day to find his district no longer contained his beloved hometown of Davenport. He knew that to win again, he'd have to move west to Iowa City. He called a family conference and his daughter surprised him by saying she would like to go to high school there.

Mr. JIM LEACH (Former Congressman, Republican, Iowa): She, with a twinkle in her eye, also indicated she might like to have a horse, all of which proved to be the case, and she had a wonderful high school experience. And her last year in high school, she'd traded Adrianne(ph) for Adam(ph). That is the horse for the boyfriend and that's kind of the way life goes in Iowa.

WERTHEIMER: Jim Leach lost his seat in 2006 when Democrats swept the state, but he still says Iowa's redistricting law, based on principles not individuals, is the finest in the country. Why did Iowa decide to do it differently? We asked everyone we met and this is the answer we heard again and again.

Mr. ROBERT RAY (Former Governor, Republican, Iowa): Number one, the Supreme Court of the state of Iowa said we needed to. And secondly, it seemed like the right thing to do.

WERTHEIMER: Former Governor Robert Ray, a Republican, who served for 14 years. He was governor when the Iowa system was signed into law. I pointed out to him that Republicans might have protected Jim Leach and even Republican control of the legislature if they'd used redistricting as other states do. In 2006, Ray said, it wouldn't have helped.

Mr. RAY: I don't think we lost in election because of that. The Republican Party didn't lose because of reapportionment.

WERTHEIMER: What is it a question of if it's not apportionment?

Mr. RAY: Well, it's a matter of an Iraqi war. It's a matter of health care. It's a combination of circumstances that I think challenged the Republican Party this time to defeat.

WERTHEIMER: Iowa's Supreme Court applied the first nudge toward doing the right thing. In 1972 ruling that Iowa's congressional districts were out of line, not close to equal size. But the question still came down to who would draw the lines. Reforming Republicans who just taken over considered outsourcing it but the politicians couldn't quite let it go. They were prepared to take a fresh look. The compromise was a nonpartisan agency within the legislature. Republican Nancy Shimanek Boyd was a floor leader for the reformed plan.

Ms. NANCY SHIMANEK BOYD (Lawyer): Who are the new people in the House, people who really weren't quite so constrained by: Well, we've always done it this way. We need to keep doing it this way. And so with that, sort of, bursts of enthusiasm, it was: Well, why not do it this way?

WERTHEIMER: You have to appreciate the beauty of the compromises these Iowans figured out. The nonpartisan legislative services folks present a plan. The legislature can debate it but can't change it. If they turned it down, the agency perfects it and brings it back. If they turned it down three times and the legislature takes over and draws its own map but so far that hasn't happened. Nancy Boyd says the reform passed because all sides were and still are convinced that it's fair.

Ms. BOYD: There wasn't a vast outcry of, you know, you're really crazy to do this. Everyone saw it as: Well, you know, we probably have just as much to gain in this as you do. You know, caucus to caucus. We're all taking the risk.

WERTHEIMER: Why haven't the rest of the states rush to follow Iowa's lead? Possibly because the Iowa meant it does not produce a predictable political advantage. But it's also true it would not be easy to do it elsewhere. Political scientists point out that Iowa is mostly white, no minority groups requiring specially drawn districts. The population is fairly evenly spread out, it's politically moderate, all things making these reforms easier and then there's just something about the way Iowans are.

Mr. STEFFEN SCHMIDT (Political Scientist, Iowa State): You just really can't be too extreme one direction or another.

WERTHEIMER: Iowa State political scientist Steffen Schmidt attributes that to Iowa's small town culture.

Mr. SCHMIDT: There is this, sort of, community culture where you have to kind of get along with people. You can't suddenly hate someone from the other party who comes to your store and you go to watch the basketball game and your kids are both on the same team in the small town trying to beat the team from a neighboring town.

WERTHEIMER: The new leader of the Iowa Senate, Democrat Mike Gronstal, says the system works because Iowa is closely divided between Democrats, Republicans and independents. There are no rules that say districts must be competitive but it's worked out that way. Party control switched in Iowa in 1996 and then in 2006, mid-decade, nothing to do with new districts, but instead with the state changing its mind. Then again, he says, Iowa looks very competitive to outsiders since most states are not competitive at all.

State Senator MIKE GRONSTAL (Democrat, Iowa): Yeah, I think other states do have times to think of us as crazy and why don't we take control of the map and the pins that draw the lines and start drawing them ourselves. And I think, in some ways, we're kind of proud in the fact that the system we have is one that's perceived as fair by pretty much everybody out there and leads to very competitive races in the state of Iowa, which means it's the strength of the ideas that win the election, not the strength of the people that controlled the map.

WERTHEIMER: For all those people who would like to see elections in this country become more competitive, that is the essential difficulty. The people who control the map and the rest of the states really don't want to give up that power.

Justice John Paul Stevens said in a speech two years ago that the system of safe seats means that instead of voters choosing their legislators, legislators choose their voters. That favors extremists over moderates in both parties, Justice Steven said, and makes confrontation seemed more acceptable than compromise, except in Iowa.

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