Introduction: Iowa’s Decatur County recorded its first confirmed COVID-19 case yesterday. With this report, the novel coronavirus has now officially completed its “Full Grassley,” having visited (and made itself at home in) all 99 of the Hawkeye State’s counties.
I have also personally completed a Full Grassley. I did so in 2011-2012, along with various GOP Presidential aspirants doing so at the same time as a way of currying electoral favor across the State in advance of the quadrennial Iowa
Dumpster Fire Caucus. One day soon after we moved here, I was sitting in a traffic jam caused by one of those GOP candidates’ tour buses blocking traffic in downtown Des Moines. As I stewed in place, it occurred to me that the Full Grassley wasn’t really as much of a chore for the candidates riding about in relative comfort in the back of the R.V. (or flying into various regional hubs from Des Moines) as it was for the unfortunate drivers who had to zig-zag back and forth across often featureless sectors of the state just to hit a series of tiny county seats.
So I decided I wanted to see what a Full Grassley felt like for those folks, behind the wheel, at road level. I got it done (Benton County completed my collection), but it was a chore, at bottom line. I suspect I’ve actually seen more of Iowa than 95%+ of the folks who have actually lived here all their lives. But did I mention that I got it done? I did. So there.
On the occasion of COVID-19 checking off all of its Full Grassley boxes, I re-run a piece I wrote in 2015 discussing why Iowa’s 99 counties represent an absurd anachronism that feeds into an even more absurd political practice. I’ve updated the data cited to the most current information. I’m cautiously optimistic that this year’s particularly embarrassing Caucus performance ends Iowa’s reign as the distracting and non-representative first-in-Nation player in our Presidential electoral process. But beyond that, I still think the State could still benefit from implementing some form of the modest proposal described below.
Iowa has an absurd number of counties for its size and population — and I say this as a person who has visited all 99 of them by car, completing what political candidates here know as a “Full Grassley”.
Iowa is the 26th largest State in the country by land area, and the 32nd largest State in the country by population. Our 99 counties, however, rank us ninth in the United States in number of county and county equivalents — and we would actually be eighth if Virginia didn’t uniquely count its 38 independent cities as county-equivalent governmental entities.
Iowa also has fewer counties defined by natural boundaries (rivers, coastlines, mountain ranges, etc.) than any other State, giving us the greatest percentage of “box counties” — formed only by surveyors’ lines — in the Nation. And we don’t even follow our own law when it comes to tiny counties: the Iowa State Constitution says no county should be smaller than 432 square miles, but ten counties are below that threshold today.
The super-abundance of neat little map boxes puts Iowa in the Nation’s bottom 20% in both average county land area and average county population. This needless plethora of counties then feeds into the “Full Grassley” phenomena, where it is viewed as a brag-worthy achievement of note to visit all 99 Iowa counties in a single year or campaign, per our senior citizen senior Senator’s loudly-proclaimed proclivity.
But really now: is that how we want our elected officials (and our visiting Presidential candidates) spending their time and money? And do we really need to financially support 100 county seats (Lee County has two) with all of the attendant layers of bureaucracy and all of the physical infrastructure associated with our profligate love of mid-level governmental institutions?
I respectfully and emphatically vote “No!”
I would rather see our citizens supported by meaningful regional governance, rather than antiquated political structures. I also find it mildly insulting that a “check off the county box” approach passes as proof that our State’s residents are being equitably seen and heard.
So consolidation makes obvious sense, but how to go about reducing Iowa’s over-abundance of counties? With apologies to Mister Swift, I offer the following modest proposal.
First, it would not make sense to eradicate county administrations that are already effectively serving sizable population centers, since that would be needlessly reinventing the wheel and/or throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
As it turns out, when you rank Iowa counties by population, there is a significant natural gap (about 35,000 people!) between number 10 (Dallas County) and number 11 (Warren County), with all of the top ten counties having over 80,000 citizens — a good functional benchmark for a State with about 3,000,000 people, based on national county averages. I would, therefore, keep the following ten counties intact, based on their current populations:
- Polk County
- Linn County
- Scott County
- Johnson County
- Black Hawk County
- Woodbury County
- Story County
- Dubuque County
- Pottawattamie County
- Dallas County
Next, there are also some existing counties that should remain intact because they are “double wides” (e.g. they break the usual grid pattern), or because they have already done their part historically to eliminate county glut, or because they are uniquely formed by geography or culture. I would keep the following counties intact under these special provisions:
- Kossuth County (largest in State geographically today, and incorporated former Bancroft and Crocker Counties historically)
- Pottawattamie County (second largest in State geographically today, already preserved due to population)
- Plymouth County (third largest in State geographically today)
- Clayton County (fourth largest in State geographically today)
- Sioux County (fifth largest in State geographically today)
- Webster County (incorporated former Risley and Yell Counties historically)
- Muscatine County (incorporated Cook County historically, and geographically unique)
- Lee County (geographically and culturally unique former “Half Breed Tract“)
So there are 17 counties that would remain as they exist today under this model: ten for population plus eight for geography, with one (Pottawattamie) on both lists. Subtract those from the current 99 and that leaves 82 counties that should be consolidated, most sensibly by doubling up the “box counties” in grids across the State.
Mills County, meet your new partner: Fremont County. Montgomery County, say hello to Page County. Please decide which of your current county seats will represent you both, and develop a plan to eliminate overlaps in your respective administrations. And so on and so on, back and forth across the State.
Take these resulting 41 new “double wide” counties, add the 17 that remain from the current map, and you’ve got a manageable 58 Iowa Counties — very commensurate with Iowa’s standing as a below-middle-of-the-pack State, size-wise and people-wise.
Senator Grassley would still have enough counties to visit to keep him out of trouble every year, and we could nearly halve county infrastructure and bureaucracy expenses. In a world of high speed road travel, cell phones, and the internet, it seems inconceivable that citizens would experience any loss of service, and municipal spaces formerly dedicated to housing county governments could be reallocated to meet real community needs: education, healthcare, libraries, whatever the region’s residents needed.
What do you think? I would love to see someone with mad map skills take a crack at demonstrating how to best double up those 82 box counties, so if you think like I do, how about getting out your colored pencils and sharing what a new and improved Iowa County Map can and should look like in the 21st Century and beyond?
My battered 2011-2015 Iowa travel map, documenting all of my Full Grassley drives, and then some.