Local lawmakers study up ahead of redistricting vote

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

District lines may be changing for all three of Dickinson County's state lawmakers. The non-partisan Legislative Services Agency updates the state's House and Senate districts every 10 years based on decennial census data. The 2020 U.S. Census saw delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the LSA released its proposed redistricting maps earlier this month. The Iowa Supreme Court granted the state legislature an extension to complete the approval process by Dec.1. Lawmakers are expected to meet in special session Oct. 5 to vote on the proposed map.

POTENTIAL CHANGES

Map courtesy of the Legislative Services Agency

Under the current draft, Dickinson County would again be represented by two lawmakers in the Iowa House. Currently, most of the county is within the district held by State Rep. John Wills, and some of southern Dickinson County falls within the district held by State Rep. Megan Jones. The proposed map would change that. Jones' district would be contained to Clay County and approximately the eastern half of Buena Vista County. Meanwhile, Dickinson County would be divided between two other districts along a somewhat jagged diagonal line.

Wills would represent Osceola and O'Brien County in addition to the western half of Dickinson County under the proposal. If approved, the eastern side of Dickinson County would join with both Emmet and Palo Alto County as well as a majority of Kossuth County to become District 6. Wills said the change would open up a seat in the Iowa House for someone wanting to represent the new district including eastern Dickinson County. The new district maps won't come into play until the 2022 elections, he said, and at that time a representative would be elected to the open seat.

Jones said she first ran for her seat in the legislature after a seat opened due to redistricting.

"There was no incumbent legislator living in my district," Jones said. "That'll happen. There will be other areas where people get put up against each other. There are some seats where there are three people who are put up against each other."

Jones went on to emphasize that whatever open seats or runoffs come as a result of the process, they are not intentional.

"These maps are done entirely by a computer and by the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency," she said. "So there's no effort on the part of the legislature to craft maps that are oddly shaped or gerrymandered."

While Jones would continue to represent Clay County and gain half of Buena Vista County under the proposed map, her district would no longer include Palo Alto County or southern Dickinson County. Jones said some portions of Clay County may have been notched into other districts in the past, but she was glad to see Clay was kept whole in this draft. In addition, she feels having Buena Vista and Clay County together in the same district could be of great benefit to the economic corridor along Highway 71.

"I don't know when the last time we saw that was," Jones said. "I see a lot of benefits out of that in the same way that we've benefitted in the past from having Palo Alto and Spencer or Emmetsburg and Spencer and that corridor connected. There's benefits to any shape of a district, but I'm happy to see this map."

State Sen. Zach Whiting would no longer represent the people of Clay County in the Iowa Senate under the proposed map House and Senate districts are distinct from one another. Whiting's district would expand from five to almost six counties. The LSA's drafted map proposes the district lose Clay County and Lyon County while adding O'Brien, Emmet and most of Kossuth County. Clay County would join Buena Vista County, Cherokee County and portions of both Plymouth and Woodbury County as Iowa Senate District 5.

Attempts to contact Whiting for comment before press time were unsuccessful.

POTENTIAL CONCERNS

Map courtesy of the Legislative Services Agency

Wills said there are a few aspects of the drafted maps which he'd like to look at more closely ahead of next month's vote. He noted the state's Congressional District 4 already the geographically largest in the state would expand from 39 counties to 44 under the proposed plan, expanding as far south as Fremont County in the very southwestern corner of Iowa. U.S. Rep. Randy Feenstra was elected to serve District 4 in November of 2020 after having served in the Iowa Senate since 2009. Feenstra's office said the now-federal legislator plans to wait and see what the state legislators decide to do, rather than make comment at this juncture. Wills estimated the proposed 4th District would encompass abut 45 percent of the state, which he felt was something to consider as he and others prepare to vote on the matter.

More locally, Wills would like to see in detail where the winding eastern border of his district falls within Dickinson County. Wills is the county's only current state lawmaker whose district would be impacted by that particular line.

"I want us to have a good, defendable map that won't get overturned in a court," Wills said. "Yet at the same time, I want the voters to be able to understand where their district sits."

Wills said there are some advantages to a county straddling district lines. He said it can be easier to get legislation rolling when multiple lawmakers represent the same county. He cited a past bill which now requires chemical treatments in Iowa's lakes to be conducted by a certified applicator. Wills said the legislation moved fairly quickly since he, Jones and Whiting were already in support of the bill's impact at the time, there was concern Dickinson County residents were treating invasive aquatic weeds themselves.

Jones said Iowa's House districts are generally drawn so they each contain about 30,000 people she noted some of Iowa's larger suburb districts have grown to about twice that number. But at the same time, there are rules for how districts can be redrawn. Wills explained the LSA can't unduly divide a county or city it must be based on population and a voting precinct cannot be divided at all. He noted those rules may have played into the winding path proposed to divide Dickinson County.

"When you look at the numbers, the deviation is about as perfect as you can get," Wills said.

He went on to note both Lyon County and Dickinson County have increased in population since the 2010 census, and he said he expected the options for rearranging the current district would be limited when the time came. He said the lines would either have to shift to something similar to the current proposal or Dickinson County would have to join with some of Clay County as far south as Spencer. As it stands, Wills said he's largely pleased with the proposed changes to the district.

"This is a really great district for me," Wills said Monday. "From a personal perspective, if we stick with this map, it'd be fine, but we'll see what happens over the next couple days."

POTENTIAL DECISIONS

Map courtesy of the Legislative Services Agency

Typically, the state legislature is required to approve an updated map by Sept. 15 if not, the Iowa Supreme Court has the option of taking on the task. However, Iowa's Chief Justice Susan Larson Christensen signed an order on Sept. 14 giving the legislature until Dec. 1 to finish its work in light of the delayed census results. Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds has called for a special session Oct. 5 for lawmakers to vote on the drafted maps.

Both Wills and State Rep. Megan Jones expect the special session will last only one day.

"I think by that time we'll have studied the maps enough and have a good idea as to whether we want to take them or take another shot at them," Jones said.

Wills explained, should the legislature vote down the map, the LSA will have 35 days to present a new draft without input from the legislators, as the first draft was and it would likely be brought to a new vote in mid-November. Should that draft be voted down as well, he said the LSA could return after another 35 days with a third draft for the legislature to accept or decline. However, at that point he said lawmakers could also draft a map themselves as long as it adhered to the same rules placed on the non-partisan agency. But, Wills said he doubts taking the process that far would be a reasonable option a downvote in mid-November would likely push lawmakers beyond the Iowa Supreme Court's Dec. 1 extension. With that in mind, he said even voting down the first draft and asking for a second one might be less than ideal.

"If it's worse, we don't have much recourse after that," Wills said.

Wills said he expects there will be some mixing of parties as the issue is hammered out next month, and he himself was still considering the matter as of Monday.

"I'm going to base my decision pretty much on what's going to be good for the state of Iowa," he said.

Three virtual public hearings on the proposed map were scheduled for this week. The third is scheduled to take place at 6 p.m. Sept. 22. Those wishing to make comment should preregister for the hearing at www.legis.iowa.gov/committees/publicHearings.

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