After each decennial census year in Iowa, a few state-appointed officials including a geographer and a computer specialist huddle to draw a new political map. The software they use masks from them past election results, party data and even incumbents' residences and instead gives priority to county and municipal borders and population equality. The mapmakers ignore pressure from legislators to skew the map in their favor. They have to. It's the law.
There's no mystery as to why Iowa's redistricting process is watched closely by other states considering redistricting reforms. It has worked for three decades.
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So close in proximity are we in Illinois, and yet so far in practice, with our state's secret, politics-drenched process that all but ensures the party in power will stay that way. While Iowa is seeing races that give challengers a fighting chance over even entrenched incumbents, Illinois offers voters lopsided contests and predestined winners.
Could the process used next door work here? Probably not completely, as Illinois' diverse population creates a different situation; nevertheless, there are key elements of a fair redistricting in Iowa and in other states that Illinois would do well to adopt.
For one, an independent commission is essential to eliminating political gaming. Who sits on these panels may not be so important as who does not: Politicians, contractors, lobbyists or anyone else with a financial interest need not apply. While legislative leaders in many states appoint some of the commissioners, representation of both parties must be equal. California takes it a step further by restricting anyone involved in a remap from running for office for 10 years.
In addition, the public must not be shut out of the drawing process. That means publishing proposals well ahead of a legislative vote, scheduling accessible public hearings and posting transcripts and video online quickly. Redistricting also must ensure that the votes of minority communities are not diluted. This is challenging in a state like Illinois with a rich diversity. Citing the Voting Rights Act of 1965, courts have ruled in favor of protecting racial and language minority groups in legislative maps.
Iowa's 1980 change from a partisan redistricting process wasn't easy, nor are efforts elsewhere. Reform is stumbling along in Indiana, Minnesota, Ohio and several other states, but new, fairer systems are in place in states like Arizona, California and New Jersey. In Wisconsin, Democrats are seeking a constitutional amendment toward a less partisan process, but Republicans in power are balking. Reverse the parties and it sounds awfully familiar.
Since Illinois Democrats have no incentive at the moment, change is unlikely unless it comes from voters themselves. A ballot proposal for a constitutional amendment backed by Change Illinois! contains many of the elements of a fair mapping process that will strengthen democracy by helping to ensure political contests that are genuine. While any change will create winners and losers, ultimately the voters will gain most.