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October 2013 Brief: Volume 20, Number 30

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Mal-apportionment and the Miracle of Iowa


by Craig Curtis, Brad McMillan, and Don Racheter



Just what is democracy? While political theorists might disagree about the precise definition of democracy, for the purposes of this paper, we start with the following propositions: 1) it is a fundamental tenet of democratic theory that all citizens have the opportunity to participate in a meaningful way in their government; 2) this participation should have the potential to actually affect the policy output of a government; and, 3) this participation should also be distributed in a roughly equal fashion – no one person or group should have significantly greater access to the system than any other.


Inherent in the American version of democracy is the right to vote. The legitimacy of our own national government rests in large part on our belief that candidates and political parties do not attempt to win elections via means of controlling the rules of the game. Rather, candidates win elections because they have convinced a majority of those voting that they are best suited to serve.


Despite the broad agreement in our society that voting is an essential element of democracy, the process for redrawing electoral districts every ten years is self-consciously manipulated for partisan advantage by both parties whenever they have the chance to do so.


While Iowa now draws its legislative districts in a non-partisan fashion, it was not always the case. For much of its history, the Republican Party controlled the redistricting process. Early elections for both state and federal officers were dominated by the Democrats, but the slavery issue and the Civil War turned the state solidly Republican. Population was first concentrated on the eastern side of the state as people flowed into Iowa from the east and south on rivers like the Ohio and Mississippi. Eventually, as railroads crossed the state from east to west, population shifted to the western portions of the state.


Towns and cities in the eastern part of the state were advantaged in representation when district lines were not redrawn as quickly, if at all, as population shifted westward. As was the case in many of the states, this inaction on Iowa reapportionment was occurring simultaneously with a vast migration of population off the farms and out of the small towns into the growing urban areas. This resulted in rural domination of the Iowa General Assembly and agitation by people suffering from mal-apportionment for redress.


In 1962, in Baker v. Carr, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that courts should address mal-apportionment in the states. However, after years of the courts stepping in on the apportionment issue, Iowa Legislators grew tired of 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.


After the 1978 election a bi-partisan sub-committee of the House State Government Committee produced a plan that specified that the Legislative Service Bureau (LSB) was to provide plans for both congressional and Iowa General Assembly redistricting, allowing the Iowa General Assembly to vote up or down on the first plan, with no amendments, and again on the second plan, if the first is defeated. In the times it has been used it has never gone to the amendable third plan.


So what can we conclude are the reasons the majority Republicans gave up the power to Gerrymander? It appears to be a combination of the following four factors. First, even within a majority party, there are those members close to the leadership, and those who are “back-benchers,” who might be Gerrymandered out of a seat if they cross the leaders. Voting for a non-partisan plan minimizes this risk. Second, and much more significant, was the resentment of the Court stepping in, at the request of the Democrats and their allies, and infringing on the institutional autonomy of the General Assembly. Closely tied to this was the third reason, the belief that the Court had botched the job, and the Iowa General Assembly acting through the LSB could do a much better job. Fourth, and perhaps most important, there were a significant number of upstanding Republican members of the Iowa General Assembly who just thought it was the right thing to do. In other words, we Iowans really were blest with a political miracle!


Is it possible that these conditions can be replicated in other states like Illinois to move them from Gerrymandering to non-partisan redistricting? It seems very unlikely. Incumbency has replaced other factors in most easily explaining election outcomes in America.


Public Interest Institute’s POLICY STUDY, Mal-apportionment and the Miracle of Iowa, can be viewed at


Craig Curtis is Associate Professor of Political Science at Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois. Brad McMillan is Director of the Institute for Principled Leadership in Public Service at Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois. Don Racheter is President of Public Interest Institute in Mount Pleasant, Iowa.


Permission to reprint or copy in whole or part is granted, provided a version of this credit line is used:"Reprinted by permission from INSTITUTE BRIEF, a publication of Public Interest Institute." The views expressed in this publication are those of the author and not necessarily those of Public Interest Institute. They are brought to you in the interest of a better-informed citizenry.




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