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June 2013 Policy Study, Number 13-4


Mal-apportionment and the Miracle of Iowa


The Courts Step In



In 1960 in Gomillion v. Lightfoot, the Supreme Court invalidated a Gerrymander of the city of Tuskegee, Alabama, and in 1962, in Baker v. Carr, they reversed Colegrove, and declared that courts should address mal-apportionment in the states. In the 1963 case of Gray v. Sanders, Justice William Douglas first used the phrase “one person, one vote” in striking down Georgia’s County Unit system. In May of 1963, the United States District Court for the Southern district of Iowa agreed with the Iowa Federation of Labor that the 1904 and 1928 plans for apportionment of the Iowa House and Senate were unconstitutional, but they did not stay the December vote on the Shaff plan.[48]


In February 1964 the Supreme Court struck down Georgia’s congressional district plan in the Wesberry v. Sanders decision, and in June ruled that both houses of the Alabama Legislature must be apportioned based on population in Reynolds v. Sims. Writing for the majority in the Reynolds case, Chief Justice Earl Warren said “legislatures represent people, not trees or acres.”[49] A tremendous backlash swept the states, especially the more rural ones. Congressmen introduced bills to deny the Court’s jurisdiction in apportionment cases, and a Constitutional Amendment to allow states to apportion one house of their legislatures based on geographical area, as is the case in the U. S. Senate, was proposed. Senator Paul Douglas of Illinois led a six-week filibuster to stop this effort, and so Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen, also of Illinois, asked the states to call for a Constitutional Convention to be held for this purpose.[50] Of the required 34 states for such a procedure, 32 agreed, but that was the “high-water mark” of the effort.[51]


Because of the subsequent redistricting in all the states between 1964 and 1994, along with the Goldwater and McGovern challenges to the “old guard” in the Republican and Democrat parties respectively, the whole landscape of American politics was “turned on its head.” The “Solid South” shifted from Democrat to Republican, New England shifted from Republican to Democrat, and urban areas gained power at the expense of the formerly dominant “conservative coalition” which favored rural interests at their expense.


On 14 January 1964, a federal district court in Iowa directed that a special session of the Legislature be called to deal with the unconstitutional apportionment issue, with the threat that the Court would draw the districts itself if the political branches failed to act in a timely fashion.[52] Governor Hughes promptly called a special session, and the Iowa General Assembly provided for two plans to deal with the problem. Plan 1 was to govern only the 1964 election, in which 59 members would be elected to the Senate based on population plus area considerations, and 124 to the House from districts each based on “equal” population.[53]


Plan 2 was a Constitutional Amendment to go into effect for the election of 1966 and subsequent years, but it was not re-passed in the 1965 session because of the Reynolds decision and the certainty it would be stuck down if challenged.[54] In April 1966, the Republicans sued on the basis that the election of 1964 had used multi-member instead of single districts and the court agreed with them in Krudienier v. McCulloch (1966) that multi-member districts violated the Constitution. This was codified in a Constitutional Amendment adopted in 1970.[55] The Iowa General Assembly authorized a bipartisan commission to come up with recommendations for the 1966 election, and the seven Democrats and seven Republicans produced a plan which was subsequently amended in “horse-trading” between the parties in the Iowa General Assembly, mostly to protect incumbents in each party.[56]


Under the plan, the Republicans maintained control of the House after the 1966 general election, but for the first time since the Depression, the Iowa General Assembly was split with the Senate controlled by the Democrats who won a majority of the 61 seats from 49 districts under the plan.[57] Since either party could now veto an attempted long-term Gerrymander, the Iowa General Assembly again created a 14-member bipartisan commission to draft a plan for a 100-member House and a 50-member Senate for the 1968 election.[58]


Also in the 1968 general election a Constitutional Amendment was passed establishing that the Iowa General Assembly would apportion itself on the basis of population in the first year following every decennial census, and if they failed to do so, the job would fall to the Iowa Supreme Court. Compact and contiguous districts were required, and for the first time in Iowa history, crossing county lines in drawing legislative districts was allowed.[59] Citizens were given standing to sue if they thought a plan was deficient.[60]


The plan recommended by the commission was again subject to lots of “horse-trading” amendments to protect incumbents before it was adopted in 1969 by the Republicans who again controlled both Houses after re-taking the Senate majority in the 1968 general election, and signed into law by newly elected Republican Governor Robert Ray. Clifton Larson, the Chairman of the Iowa State Democrat Party, brought suit alleging it was unconstitutional and in early 1970 the Iowa Supreme Court agreed, but they allowed the election of 1970 to take place under the plan anyway![61]


Remaining in control after the 1970 election, the Republicans asked the well-regarded Legislative Service Bureau (LSB) to come up with new plans taking into account the 1970 census data and the various applicable court decisions, and Phil Burks, the Senior Research Analyst who was the LSB expert in the area again asked University of Iowa Professor of Systems Engineering John M. Liittschwager, who had assisted in drawing up the 1969 plan, for help.[62] At the time, the University was the only one in the state with a powerful enough mainframe computer to handle the computational load necessary to do the districting according to the criteria laid down by the courts.[63] They came up with 12 plans, and the majority Republicans picked the one which they thought would give them the most advantage in the 1972 election. Governor Ray signed it into law on 8 March 1971.[64]


The Iowa Civil Liberties Union (ICLU), the Iowa League of Women Voters (ILWV), the Iowa Federation of Labor (IFL), the United Auto Workers Union (UAW), and the Iowa Democrat Party (IDP) jointly sued to have the new plan declared unconstitutional, since the changes to the original plans were designed to protect incumbents rather than improve the equality of the districts’ populations.[65] On 14 January 1972, the Iowa Supreme Court unanimously declared the 1971 plan void and took it upon itself, with the assistance of Burks, the LSB, and Liittschwager and his team at the University of Iowa to come up with a better plan. This was accomplished by April 1, and the plan had a variance between the largest and smallest districts of .009 percent versus the variance of 3.8 percent in the former Iowa General Assembly plan.[66]


The districts might have been nearly equal, but they weren’t pretty. One representative had his house in one district, but his barn in another. Don Avenson, who went on to become the leader of the Democrats in the House, then Speaker, and who now is a lobbyist, angrily whipped out a pen and paper upon being asked about his district under the court’s plan, drew the outline of his district, and pointed out that he had parts of four counties, had a single town from one county, had a town whose township was in another district, and had half of another town.[67]


The Iowa Legislators did not like the court’s encroachment on their institutional autonomy, and determined to come up with an apportionment plan that would not be struck down, according to former Representative and former Senator David M. Stanley.[68] The legislators thought the courts did a terrible job in the plan they imposed for the 1972 election.[69] The implication was that the Iowa General Assembly could do a much better job without the courts interfering.[70] Most Legislators also at least paid lip service to the idea that fair apportionment was “the right thing to do” and that something needed to be done to address the “one man, one vote” edict of the Supreme Court.[71]


The Democrats had the added incentive that they believed they would gain seats under a fairer apportionment which gave more seats to urban districts where their supporters were concentrated, and taking them from rural districts which traditionally in Iowa had supported Republicans.[72] Indeed this proved to be the case, as the number of Democrats in the House increased to 45 under the court ordered plan, and once the subsequent non-partisan LSB plan was adopted, they took control.[73] Which gives rise to the “$64,000 question” of why the dominant Republicans gave up their ability to Gerrymander and adopted a long-range plan for non-partisan redistricting, creating the “Miracle” of Iowa.




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