How Iowa's once-a-decade redistricting process, slowed by census delays, could reshape state's political future

Brianne Pfannenstiel
Des Moines Register

Iowa officials are preparing to redraw the boundary lines for every legislative and congressional district to reflect new population trends — a task that will help shape the state’s political future for the next decade or more.

It's a process that could throw veteran lawmakers into the same district, forcing them to decide whether run against each other. Or it could create open districts, offering a better chance for political newcomers.

Suburban legislative districts in places such as Waukee, Ankeny and Grimes stand to gain power as their populations boom and rural Iowa sheds residents. 

According to other population estimates, Iowa has continued to grow, but at a slower rate than in other parts of the country. For now, Iowa will retain its four congressional seats, though that could change in future decades if population growth doesn't keep pace.

This year, members of both parties are watching closely to see what happens to Polk County, the Democratic power center of the state, which currently anchors Iowa's 3rd District. If the county were combined with Story County, directly to the north in what is now the 4th District, for example, that could create a reliably safe district for Democrats for the next 10 years. Under current maps, the 3rd District has been won by both Democratic and Republican candidates.

At the same time, pulling Story County out of the 4th District would further reinforce it as a Republican stronghold.

How those and other issues shake out through the redistricting process will be deeply consequential as candidates weigh runs in 2022.

But the map-making process will get a slow start. Typically, states would expect to have federal census data by April 1 to begin the once-in-a-decade redistricting process. But the COVID-19 pandemic has delayed that data delivery to at least July 30, a representative for the U.S. Census Bureau said last week during a webinar with the National Conference of State Legislatures.  


Iowa's Constitution requires the Legislature to approve the plans by Sept. 1 so they take effect by Sept. 15. The delay would give state officials one month, at best, to complete their work rather than the usual five months. 

Ed Cook, a senior legal counsel who heads the redistricting process for Iowa's nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency, said this year's redistricting timeline remains in flux. 

"We just don't know when the Census Bureau is going to provide us the data, so it's kind of hard to know exactly when we're going to be able to start," he said.

'Political information is prohibited from being used'

But even with so much at stake, Iowa remains one of the few states unfettered by political gerrymandering — the process state parties often use to craft politically advantageous districts in an effort to maintain power.

Gerrymandered districts are often misshapen, because they're drawn to split up voters of the minority party to de-emphasize their power, or they're drawn to concentrate support for the majority party and give it an outsize voice.

Iowa’s process is headed up by Cook and the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency, rather than the political parties, insulating it from the whims of politics.

"Iowa Code is very strict, along with the Constitution," Cook said. "Political information is prohibited from being used in drawing either congressional or legislative boundaries. So we have no access to any political information, registered voter information or anything like that. We just have the total population for counties, cities, townships and precincts."

Once the LSA receives federal census data, Cook and his team will set about redrawing 50 state Senate districts, 100 state House districts and four congressional districts that represent an equal slice of the population. Once their map-drawing is done, Cook said the final population difference between each congressional district is typically less than 300 people.

Cook and the LSA will be required to submit their first version of the redrawn maps to the state Legislature within 45 days of receiving the federal census data.

The maps will be open to discussion in public hearings before the Legislature considers them for a vote. Lawmakers are not allowed to make changes of their own to the maps — only to approve or reject the non-partisan maps.

If the first set of maps is rejected, the LSA is tasked with drawing another version and sending that back to the Legislature. If those maps are rejected, LSA is required to send a third version to the Legislature. On its third iteration, lawmakers are allowed to amend the maps with their own suggestions.

That amendment process is where some Democrats say they’re worried Republicans could bring politics into the mix by bypassing LSA.

However, since the state adopted its current redistricting laws in 1980, the Legislature has gotten to a third plan only once, in 1981, and that plan was enacted into law without amendments. 

Iowa House Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, has praised Iowa's process and said the party does not plan to make any changes to the law. However, he and other Republicans have not committed to approving one of the first two maps.

“I don’t know the last time that leaders were asked on the redistricting process to accept a map that they haven’t even seen,” he said. “... I think it’s a ludicrous question to even ask of leadership.”

Even if the process did reach a third plan, there are safeguards that would limit a politician's ability to skew Iowa's maps. In both congressional and legislative redistricting, Iowa law says districts must be contiguous and compact. And counties cannot be divided into different congressional districts. 

“I think we have a really good process in place that’s worked for a long time,” said Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, a Republican. “I think it’s fair and balanced, and I believe that’s the intent of the Legislature to maintain that.”

Iowa's Congressional Districts

Special Iowa legislative session could be required

The Legislature is required to approve a plan for legislative redistricting and send it to Reynolds by Sept. 1, and it must become law by Sept. 15. If those deadlines are not met, the Iowa Supreme Court will weigh in and draw the maps. 

There is not a similar deadline for congressional redistricting. But federal law outlines a process if new districts are not enacted in time for the next congressional elections. 

However, the Iowa Legislature typically ends its sessions in late April or May. Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny, said lawmakers would likely have to return to Des Moines for a special session to try to meet the redistricting deadlines. 

"We expected the census data to be delayed because of the COVID pandemic," he said. "So we have been preparing to receive that data sometime probably after session ends, and so we’re looking at ways to do a special session. We really need to get that done constitutionally by Sept. 1, and the governor needs to sign it by Sept. 15."

State Rep. Mary Mascher, D-Iowa City, has been in office during each of the previous two redistricting cycles. She warned during a recent “Moral Mondays” call with Democrats that changing legislative boundaries can force some uncomfortable decisions among legislators.

During the 2010 redistricting process, for example, the boundaries of her House district changed to overlap with those of her colleague, Democratic state Rep. Dave Jacoby, of Coralville.

“I ended up moving to another part of Iowa City that had more of my old district than obviously Dave’s new district," she said. "... We usually see a pretty high turnover of legislators in those redistricting years due to the fact that people are thrown into each district. A lot of times people have to decide: Am I going to primary a colleague? Am I going to choose not to run? Or am I going to move?”

She said often redistricting can create opportunities for those looking to break into politics because it results in new, open districts. It’s often easier for people to run in an open contest rather than against an incumbent, she said.

Brianne Pfannenstiel is the chief politics reporter for the Register. Reach her at or 515-284-8244. Follow her on Twitter at @brianneDMR.