Peter Blake: A better way to draw political maps |

Peter Blake: A better way to draw political maps

Peter Blake

What’s the matter with Iowans, anyway? If they’re so passionate about politics, how come they wrapped up congressional redistricting and legislative reapportionment in a single bill enacted before last Easter?

They didn’t even need a judge to do their work for them.

Sure, Colorado lawmakers ran through the people’s business in 120 days. But an issue few care about except politicians and party activists – setting new district boundaries – was debated by a commission and the courts until almost Christmas.

Iowa, The Music Man tells us, is where “we’re so by-God stubborn we can stand touchin’ noses for a week at a time and never see eye to eye.” But the redistricting-reapportionment bill passed the state Senate 48-1 and the state House 91-7, both on April 14. No lawmakers spoke against the bill in the House. Gov. Terry Branstad signed it five days later.

This despite the fact that Iowa lost one of its five congressional seats after the 2010 census. But the new boundaries are so different that not one but two incumbents were forced into others’ districts.

In the state House, 25 representatives (19 of them Republicans) were put into other incumbents’ districts; 14 state senators (nine of them Republicans) were similarly doubled up.

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And they took it without a whimper. What’s the secret?

Iowa, says Tim Storey of the National Conference of State Legislatures, has had a system like no other state since 1981. First, the original maps are drawn up by the state’s nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency, the equivalent of Colorado’s Legislative Council and Office of Legislative Legal Services. There are no “Republican” maps or “Democratic” maps.

Second, only demographics are taken into consideration. Districts must be equal in population, compact and respect political subdivisions as much as possible. Colorado has similar standards, but here’s the difference: In Iowa, political considerations must be excluded. Maps cannot be drawn to favor any political party or any incumbent.

The law provides that the addresses of incumbents, the political affiliation of registered voters and previous election results must be ignored. There is no effort to create so-called “competitive” districts, and yet Iowa remains as competitive as Colorado.

A five-member citizens’ advisory committee holds hearings around the state with the map, and may recommend tweaks. The map must be speedily introduced in the legislature and only corrective amendments are permitted. If it’s voted down, or vetoed by the governor, two more maps may be introduced. If all three are rejected, the issue goes to the state supreme court. But that’s never happened in four decennial go-rounds. This year the first map was accepted.

Colorado had a chance this year to try something similar, at least in legislative redistricting. At the first meeting of the Reapportionment Commission last spring, member Rob Witwer of Genesee read a memo he’d written suggesting that a plan like Iowa’s be tried.

Witwer, a former state representative, might as well have been speaking Urdu. When he invited comments or questions, there were none. “Nobody even asked me about it afterward,” he recalled this week.

He wouldn’t try to adopt the Iowa law chapter and verse, “because then you’d have to change the (state) constitution.” But Colorado’s existing law permits a close enough system, he said. For instance, nothing prevents the commission from asking nonpartisan legislative staffers to draw the baseline map, and to ignore political data.

Lawmakers from both parties rely on staffers to draft legislation; why wouldn’t they be trusted with a map?

No competing maps could be introduced. “All changes to the map would have to be justified by public input,” says Witwer, and would have to be drawn by the staff, at the direction of the commission.

Much was made this year of creating “competitive” districts, even though that’s not a requirement in law. Witwer scoffs at that notion. Competitiveness, as he defines it, “means turning the other party’s district competitive.”

It was Democrats who primarily urged competitiveness this year, mostly because they want to oust Republican U.S Rep. Mike Coffman in the 6th District. But see how eager for competitiveness they would be if a Republican suggested splitting Denver into two or three districts in order to have a better shot at Rep. Diana DeGette.

Failing adoption of the Iowa system, Witwer would recommend that three of the commission’s 11 members be unaffiliated instead of just one. The current system “puts way too much pressure on one individual,” he said.

When the Reapportionment Commission was proposed in a 1974 initiative, the blue book arguments emphasized it would take politics out of the process. It hasn’t happened, and it would be impossible to remove politics completely. But the Iowa system might be a step in the right direction.

It’s possible that some sort of law, referendum or initiative will be introduced next year to change the current system. It’s too soon to tell.

But Witwer has this response to those who criticize his proposal: “Do you think what we’ve been doing is working?”

Longtime Rocky Mountain News political columnist Peter Blake now writes Thursdays for the Colorado News Agency. Contact him at

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