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Reapportioning the Iowa Legislature, 1950-1980


Reapportioning the Iowa Legislature, 1950-1980

In a democracy, the voters are to select their legislators, but up until recent years, the legislators drew the maps into the districts from which they were elected. The Iowa constitution places responsibility for drawing the legislative map into districts from which representatives and senators will be elected.  How those lines are drawn can have a huge impact on who gets elected.  As one observer put it, the voters select their legislators, but the legislators also select their voters.  How to devise a fair system to translate the translate the public will into public policy has always been a challenge.  In the maneuvering for advantage that following in the forty years following the end of WWII, each party pushed for rules that would increase its power in the Iowa legislature.

However, the Iowa legislature does not operate alone in setting its own rules.  Both the Federal and state courts require that all laws to follow due process in their enactment and enforcement and, more specifically, that the laws cannot unjustly discriminate against individuals.  The story of reapportionment in Iowa has been a complex and often confusing dance between partisan legislators seeking advantage for their own interests in drawing district lines and the courts demanding that the rules abide by constitutional guarantees of fairness.

During the drafting of the United State Constitution, delegates at one point came to an impasse on how states were to be represented the Federal legislature.  Smaller states feared that they would be at the mercy of larger states while larger states felt that they deserved more representation because they had more people.  The delegates reached a compromise by creating two legislative bodies: The House of Representatives and the Senate.  The number of members each state elected to the House would be based on population.  The ideal would be to have each representative have the same number of constituents.  In the Senate, each state was allotted two senators, regardless of its geographic size or population.  

When Iowa adopted its own constitution in 1846, it followed the Federal model and created two legislative: the Senate and the House of Representatives.  It also created county and townships to handle more local responsibilities—collecting taxes, maintaining roads, supervising schools, electing local law enforcement officers.  Each county elected a member of the House of Representatives.  Counties were grouped together to elect a common senator.  In the 19th C., with few cities of significant size, the population was distributed fairly evenly across the landscape so that each elected official represented approximately the same number of constituents.  With the growth of Iowa cities, however, particularly after WWII, urban centers came to be significantly underrepresented.  Legislators from rural districts with smaller populations had far fewer constituents each.  It became obvious that state policies  tended to favor rural interests above urban ones.

What were some of these issues?  Rural areas wanted money for roads spent more on maintaining local roads and bridges in the country that farm families depended on than on streets in the cities. Urban areas needed funding to maintain streets and highways.  Rural areas tended to favor stricter regulation on the sale of alcohol.  With the growth of manufacturing in the state after WWII, with most of the factories located in the cities, more workers were joining labor unions and pressing for laws to make it easier for unions to organize and require new hires to be union members.  Rural residents often opposed pro-union legislation.  Farmers were naturally against relying on property taxes as the major source of government funding.

The problem for urban residents was that the legislature itself set the rules that determined how members were to be elected.  In 1904, recognizing the unfair weight given to rural residents, the state passed a constitutional amendment expanding the size of the House to 108 and giving each of the 99 counties one representative and adding one additional one to the nine largest counties.  While that was a slight boon to the cities, the imbalance was still obvious.  Under the new arrangement, the 7,905 residents of Dickinson County in the northwest Iowa had one representative while the 82,624 residents of Polk County had two.  In 1924, the Senate underwent a reorganization reducing it to 50 senators.  No county could have more than one senator.  Smaller counties were grouped together while the larger counties got their own senator, but the outcome still gave rural areas a preponderance of voting power.  By 1950, Iowa’s urban population had grown almost equal to the rural, and cities were demanding a greater voting share in both chambers.

Beginning in the early 1950s, urban calls for reform of legislative apportionment for grew stronger.  Wanting to insure rural domination of at least one of the chambers, spokesmen for rural interests proposed following the Federal model with one house based on population and the other on area regardless of the number of people who lived there.  A coalition of groups favoring such an arrangement formed, led by the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation.  The Iowa Manufacturers Association supported the effort because they hoped to counter the growing strength of workers’ unions concentrated in the cities.  Rural newspaper editors added their voices in defending local interests.  Because all of these had strong ties to the Republican Party, Republican elected officials strongly leaned to preserving rural hegemony.

As might be expected, voices for expansion of urban interests were labor unions, especially the Iowa Federation of Labor; urban newspapers like the Des Moines Register and Tribune; and civic groups like the League of Women Voters who saw the issue in terms of model government.  The Democratic Party became the champion of the urban challengers.

The Iowa constitution mandates that every ten years, Iowa voters will be asked if they want such a convention.  Since it was highly unlikely that the Republican-controlled, rural-dominated Iowa legislature was going to vote voluntarily to relinquish its power, the urban coalition mounted a campaign in 1960 to convene a constitutional convention to rewrite the rules on legislative representation.  Despite urban efforts, the proposal went down to defeat by a sizable majority.

In 1963. Iowa voters went to the polls to defeat a constitutional amendment on apportionment.  The Shaff Plan, introduced by David Shaff of Clinton, called for the Iowa Senate to be apportioned by population, and the Iowa House of Representatives to be apportioned by area.  While it carried 64 of 99 counties, urban voters turned out solid “no” votes to sink it.  The vote exposed the hurdle to getting a new law passed by legislative means.  The legislature was in control of rural interests but urban voters could torpedo proposals at the ballot box. 

The Supreme Court speaks: “One man, one vote”

However, in 1964, a new factor entered the in the debate.  The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Reynolds v. Sims that both houses of the legislature must be based solely on population.  Termed the “one-man, one-vote” policy, the Court declared that a state was not like the Federal government.  The latter had been created by the states who reserved to themselves the right to be represented in the Senate by two senators each.  On the other hand, each state created all the local jurisdictions within their borders, like counties.  Denying the votes of anyone equal weight in the legislative process was forbidden.  Under this new Federal court ruling, which took precedence over state legislation, the Iowa Senate based soley on area and not on population was unconstitutional.  The Federal district court in Des Moines demanded that the Iowa Legislature come up with a new reapportionment plan in time for the 1966 elections. In response, the legislature raised the number of Senate seats from 59 to 61, primarily to protect incumbent Republican senators who would have had to run against each other in a primary. Again the courts struck down the plan on the grounds that the changes had produced less equal districts and demanded that the legislature come up with a new proposal.

In a strange twist of events, it was the Democrats who would write the next apportionment plan.  Republicans lost heavily in the 1964 elections. The Republican Party nominated the ultra-conservative Barry Goldwater for President who proved so unpopular with voters that the Democrats won the White House and Congress at the national level but also captured the Iowa governorship and solid control of the Iowa legislature. They ended up with an incredible 101-23 majority in the House and 34-25 in the Senate.  Now the Democrats had the votes to call the shots on reapportionment.

In the Democrats’ new legislation, in counties that were allowed to send multiple representatives, all candidates ran at-large instead of from sub-districts within the county. No candidate ran in a small division of the county; all candidates were elected by the entire county. That meant that each voter in Polk County could vote for eleven legislators instead of just one. Whichever eleven candidates received the most votes won the seats. 

Forced by the courts to come up with a “one-man, one-vote” policy, the Democratic leadership proposed a constitutional amendment establishing a permanent reapportionment plan with five major components.  1) The Iowa House would have no more than 100 members and the Senate no more than 50. 2) Districts in both chambers would be based solely on population and drawn as compact and contiguous as possible.  The intent was to eliminate peculiarly-shaped districts drawn to maximize voting strength of one party or the other. 3) Districts could cross county lines to achieve population equality.  This was a new development since never before could county lines be violated in drawing district boundaries.  4)  If the legislature failed to enact a legitimate plan, the courts could write their own redistricting map.  5) Any voter who feels his/her rights have been violated by a legislative plan could have his/her case reviewed by the Iowa Supreme Court without going through lower courts first.  This would give a speedy resolution to the objection where time was critical with an approaching election.  To become law, the amendment would have to be approved by the legislature elected in 1966 and then receive a majority by Iowa voters in a referendum.

The Democrats, however, did not address the multi-member districts that gave them an advantage in urban districts where they held a county-wide majority.  The Iowa Supreme Court, however, did address them.  In the spring of 1966, the Court ruled multi-member districts a violation of the one-man, one-vote principle because it gave urban voters in multi-member districts more legislators that rural members had in single-member districts.  It was too late to add that provision to the proposed amendment they had just passed; to make any changes would have required them to delay submission to voters by at least two years.  And the Democrats were in no hurry to eliminate that advantage.

Courts nix multi-legislator districts

In the fall elections of 1966, Republicans regained control of the House while Democrats kept a majority in the Senate bolstered by the four-year terms of party members elected in 1964.  In a rare situation, the Iowa had a divided legislature which required a bi-partisan approach to reapportionment.  In a novel approach, the legislature appointed a commission composed of seven Republicans and seven Democrats to come up with a redistricting plan.  The commission did its work and the legislature passed it. They also passed an amendment in keeping with the court’s insistence making single-member districts a requirement for all legislative seats.  It would not reach the voters until 1970 when its passage was non-controversial because the courts would not allow any other arrangement.

Voters went to the polls in 1968 and put Republicans once again in charge of both chambers of the legislature.  Voters also passed the five-part reapportionment plan by a wide margin.  It was, therefore, up to the new legislature to put the provisions of the new amendment into practice.  Not the least of the challenges was to reduce the size of both houses, the House by 24 seats and the Senate by 11.  Rather than creating a fight among the legislators themselves on this very sensitive issue, they once again turned to a bi-partisan commission which reported back a plan.  However, now in charge of both chambers, Republicans made some alterations to the commission proposal, most of which were designed to eliminate primary fights among incumbent Republican legislators.

Once again, the courts ruled in the spring of 1970 that the amended redistricting plan was unconstitutional because it provided less equal representation on the one-man, one-vote principle because of the changes made.  However, it was too late to change the maps for the 1970 elections,

Republicans retained strong majorities in 1970 voting. When the legislature convened for its 1971 session, it directed its own Legislature Service Bureau to draw up three redistricting plans from which the legislature would choose one.  Once again, partisanship intervened and Republicans made alterations to the LSB plan to protect incumbent Republicans.  In doing so, they made the districts less equal than the original. 

The Courts take charge

And once again, opponents brought suit against this latest arrangement.  The League of Women Voters presented its own plan with much greater equality among districts than what the legislature had approved, proving that a better plan was possible.   The plaintiffs this time won a stunning court ruling on January 24, 1972.  This time, the Iowa Supreme Court, tired of legislative trickery ignoring its clear one-man, one-vote mandate, announced that it would write its own plan for the legislature to follow.  It came up with a map in which districts were compact, contiguous, and deviated in population from each other by less than 1/10th of 1%!  It moved primary elections back to August 1 from their normal early June dates to give candidates and election officials more time to adjust to the newly drawn districts.  And in November, Iowa voters went to the pools with, in the words of Dr. Charles Wiggins in his masterful account of the subject, “the most equitably apportioned legislature in the Union.”

After the 1980 census, when it was time for another reapportionment based on population shifts in the past ten years, the legislature directed the Legislative Service Bureau to come up with three plans which, as nearly as possible, created House and Senate districts as equal in population and as compact and contiguous as possible for the elected representatives to consider.  There could be no changes to what the LSB proposed.  Both chambers would have to agree on one of the plans and send it to the governor for approval.  If they could not agree, the courts could once again step in and draw the maps from which the Iowa legislature is elected.  Since 1980, the legislature has always approved on the LSB plans, and the legislators’ role is greatly reduced.

Taking the politics out of reapportionment has removed much partisan bickering and charges of gerrymandering (drawing lines for the benefit of one party or the other) with which many other states are contending. 

For Further Reading

·         Supreme court case Reynolds v Sims: “One Man One Vote”  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reynolds_v._Sims

·         Charles Wiggins, “The Post WW II Legislative Reapportionment Battle in Iowa Politics,” in Patterns and Perspectives in Iowa History, Dorothy Schwieder, ed. (ISU Press, 1973)