Living in Society

Sunrise in Iowa

Sunrise in Iowa.

The general election is in 17 days. We can’t wait for the results.

Early voting is at record numbers, although Americans are not known for being big on voting. I read a Pew Research Center report that said in 2016 four in ten Americans who were eligible to vote did not do so. We, the people, are pathetic.

It’s not that nothing is at stake. The stakes are high. All the same, a lot of people do not vote and the republic is the less for it.

My sense of the 2016 election is a lot of folks who had never or rarely voted came out for Donald Trump, giving him an unexpected win. Turning out new voters is an important part of any political campaign because the pool of eligible but not voting voters is so large. The election of Trump turned politics as usual on its head.

Jen O’Malley Dillon, the Biden-Harris campaign manager, cautioned people about recent polling showing Biden leading overall by double digits. The race is much closer, she said. After being burned by polls in 2016, most politically active people are inclined to believe O’Malley Dillon and continue working to turn out voters until the polls close.

This cycle was complicated by the coronavirus pandemic. As election day approaches the COVID-19 case count, related hospitalizations and deaths hit new records. Because of the pandemic, Democrats have avoided normal voter contact such as door knocking and in-person events. Republicans have not. Whether this will make a difference is an open question. The Iowa Secretary of State decided, and the legislative council approved, to mail an absentee ballot request to every active voter in the state. This is encouraging eligible people to vote and record voter turnout is expected.

One of the things at stake in this election is control of the Iowa legislature. The most important reason is this General Assembly will approve redistricting maps for the state. This impacts both congressional districts and every state house and senate district. My state representative Bobby Kaufmann summarized the Republican position in a Feb. 26, 2019 newsletter to constituents. Here’s the full paragraph, unedited:

One of my many roles as State Government Chair is to protect our redistricting process. We currently use a nonpartisan model that allows a computer program to work with nonpartisan government staff to draw our lines. This model has worked great since its inception in 1980. Just like I told you I will protect IPERS from any harmful changes, I commit to you to protect our redistricting process from harmful changes. Unfortunately, Washington D.C has other ideas. The first resolution the new Congressional Democrat Majority has put forth would change our fair and nonpartisan process and would inject politics into it. House Resolution one establishes a new commission comprised of people registered with a political party. You can read the bill if you go to the Congressional webpage and type in “HR-1”. My message to Washington D.C. and the new Congress is to leave our system alone, stay in your own lane, and focus on the plethora of problems you have in DC – not meddling with the States. I don’t care if it is Republican or Democrat…leave Iowa’s outstanding system alone.

As we knew then, HR-1 wasn’t going anywhere. What does matter is Kaufmann’s statement is a distraction from what could happen under current law.

When the non-partisan government staff produces a new district map the legislature can accept or reject it without amendments. If rejected it then goes back to the drawing board for a second attempt which must address the issues raised with the first map. The legislature can accept or reject the second map without amendments. If the second map is rejected, a third is produced. This map can be amended by the legislature. Since 1980 the first map was accepted in 1991 and 2011, the second map was accepted in 2001, and a third map was accepted in 1981. There is a process if the third map is rejected, which hasn’t happened after four U.S. Census counts.

Republican pundit Craig Robinson posted on twitter he was willing to bet $100 a Republican legislature would accept the first map in 2021. That’s cold comfort for Democrats because a Republican-controlled Iowa House and Senate could reject the first two maps and tinker with legislative districts to produce a structural Republican advantage for the following ten years. Creating such a structural advantage is called gerrymandering, a nomenclature that upsets Iowa Republicans who hear it.

It would be better for everyone if we flipped the Iowa House to Democratic control, if for nothing else than to provide balance during the redistricting process. We had divided government in 2011 and the district map approved was judged to be a fair one. The current reckoning is Democrats must produce a net gain of four seats in the Iowa House to secure control of the body.

When we consider all the Americans who were eligible to vote in 2016 and didn’t, the discussion of redistricting is way into the weeds. Elections have consequences and if Republican legislators control the redistricting process there is no going back for another ten years. A lot can happen in ten years and preparing for them begins in the next 17 days.