Recent releases of 2020 census data mark the beginning of the complicated process of redrawing Iowa’s political boundaries.


Reapportionment is something that has happened in Iowa every 10 years since 1930, when our congressional delegation was reduced from a high of 11 U.S. representatives to nine. 


Because representation in Congress is based on population, Iowa lost five more U.S. House seats following the 1940, 1960, 1970, 1990 and 2010 censuses. 


It’s not that Iowa wasn’t growing. After we became the 29th state in 1846, Iowa experienced only two decades of population decline. The first was between 1900 and 1910; the second was during the 1980s farm crisis.


Iowa’s population grew the rest of time but not as fast as the rest of the country.


Between 1920 and 1980, Iowa’s growth was about a third of the national average. Since 1990, it’s been about half the national average.  


Before 1930, many states, including Iowa, did not consistently redraw political boundaries. 


Iowa’s pre-1930 districts included one district that wound like a snake across northeast Iowa and another that curled like a giant comma with a long horizontal tail away from the Mississippi River in central Iowa. Such geographic representations are called gerrymandering, after Elbridge Gerry, a Founding Father whose creative 18th-century drawing of a district in Massachusetts resembled a salamander.  


Following the 1930 census, the shapes of Iowa’s congressional districts became more compact. But it was not until the civil rights battles of the 1960s that the U.S. Supreme Court enshrined the principle of one person, one vote.


Iowa’s current system dates from the 1980s, and was prompted by a failed plan in 1971 that was overturned by the Iowa Supreme Court. 


Unlike many states, where new districts are drawn by whichever party is in power, Iowa reapportionment is overseen by the nonpartisan Iowa Legislative Services Agency.


Iowa’s 1980 law establishing the procedure allows the LSA to successively draw as many as three maps for congressional and legislative districts. Lawmakers can only vote up or down on the first two maps. Only when a third LSA map is voted down can partisan lawmakers make changes.


So far, that has not happened. In 1981, lawmakers approved the third LSA map without changes. During the next three reapportionment sessions (1991, 2001 and 2011), the LSA never had to produce more than two maps to reach agreement on congressional districts.


The recently released 2020 census shows how disproportionate Iowa’s 2011 congressional districts have become.  


Iowa law basically allows a 2% variation between the largest and smallest districts. Population gains of the past 10 years are most noticeable in the 3rd District, which stretches from Des Moines to Council Bluffs. That district is now 12% larger than the 4th District, which includes Sioux City and Ames. 


As the LSA crunches numbers to resolve how population shifts can be reconfigured into new districts, I’ve also been playing with rough numbers.


And I think I’ve found a simple solution that will create four congressional districts with nearly equal populations. 


It begins with a doughnut-hole district of six counties in the center of the state. The combined population of Boone, Story, Marshall, Dallas, Polk and Jasper counties in 2020 is about 795,200, not far from the new ideal population (797,664) for congressional districts. 


Now, if you draw a north-south line through the middle of Iowa and take the 46 counties west of that line that are not part of the doughnut hole, you’ll get a district with about 800,300 residents.


Divide the remaining 47 counties in eastern Iowa almost evenly, with 24 counties in the north and 23 in the south, and you get districts with 789,200 (north) and 805,700 (south).


All four of these new districts appear to fall within the law’s population guidelines.


Knowing this now, it will be interesting to follow along as the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency and the currently hyper-partisan General Assembly work through the process.