Congressional Districting in Iowa


Sleep Aid

It’s late, and you’re still awake. Allow us to help with Sleep Aid, a series devoted to curing insomnia with the dullest, most soporific prose available in the public domain. Tonight’s prescription: “Congressional Districting in Iowa,” a paper from the July 1903 issue of the Iowa Journal of History and Politics.


From Tacuina sanitatis, fourteenth century.

It is the purpose of this paper to outline briefly the history of legislation on the subject of congressional districting in Iowa—pointing out the changes made from time to time, showing by means of maps the exact form and extent of the districts established by the several acts of the General Assembly, and commenting upon the motives and circumstances prompting alterations in the boundaries of these districts. Prior to 1847 there were no congressional districts in the State. From 1838 to 1846 Iowa existed as a separate Territory, entitled to one Delegate in Congress, who was chosen for a term of two years and who represented the entire territorial area and population. Then came the change incident to statehood. On August 4, 1846, Congress passed an act defining the boundaries of the State of Iowa and providing that, until the next census and apportionment, the new State should be entitled to two seats in the House of Representatives. A State Constitution was adopted, and on December 28, 1846, Iowa entered the Union. The State had not, however, been districted in time for the election of that year; hence the two congressmen were chosen on a general ticket, each to represent the State as a whole. Since that time Iowa congressmen have been elected by districts and the General Assembly has enacted seven laws respecting the division of the State for this purpose.


On December 7, 1846, the State Senate voted that a “select committee of seven” be appointed to “report a bill to the Senate, dividing the State into two congressional districts, so as to include, as nearly as can be done, an equal portion of the territory and an equal portion of the population of the State in each district, and that the vote given in August last for and against the constitution be taken as the basis in dividing the population.” This committee reported a bill which was later referred to a selected committee of three from each judicial district. From this body the bill emerged in a somewhat modified form; and, after considerable discussion and amendment both in the Senate and in the House, it became a law, February 22, 1847. This first statute on the subject divided the State into two congressional districts: the first was to consist of the counties of Lee, Van Buren, Jefferson, Wapello, Davis, Appanoose, Henry, Mahaska, Monroe, Marion, Jasper, Polk, Keokuk, and the country south of a line drawn from the northwest corner of Polk county west to the Missouri river; the second was composed of the counties of Clayton, Dubuque, Delaware, Jackson, Clinton, Jones, Linn, Poweshiek, Benton, Iowa, Johnson, Cedar, Scott, Muscatine, Washington, Louisa, Des Moines, and all north of a line from the northwest corner of Polk county west to the Missouri. From the standpoint of area, of population, and of politics, this arrangement seems to have been equitable. Turning to Map I, on which the limits of the two districts are indicated, we see that the dividing line marks off a southern, or first district, and a northern, or second district, which are fairly regular in outline, but quite unequal in area. This inequality is, however, readily explained in this way. To compensate for the sparse settlement of the northwest, the eastern portion of the boundary line veers to the south so that the comparatively dense population of the southeast may be shared by the second district. In population, on the other hand, the first (and smaller) district leads by more than 2,000; while in voters it outnumbers the second district by about 500. As to politics, each district returned a Democratic majority of a few hundred. But there is little ground for a charge of gerrymander; for, while the Whig minority was large in each case, it was so distributed as to make the formation of even one Whig district impossible, except through the establishment of the most irregular and unnatural boundaries.


Early in January, 1848, a bill was introduced into the House of Representatives providing for the transfer of Poweshiek county from the second congressional district to the first. Apparently without opposition, this measure passed both houses, and on January 24 received the signature of the Governor. Why this transfer was made, is not clear. It is true that on this same January 24 the first law was passed for the organization of the county of Poweshiek, whose boundaries had been fixed a few years before; but this change in the status of the county did not necessitate a change in its relation to the congressional districting of the State. The transfer was not to equalize the population of the two districts; for the census returns for 1847, 1848, and 1849 show that the inhabitants of the first district outnumbered those of the second by several thousand. Nor could the political motive have been weighty; for, while the election returns indicate a decreasing Democratic majority in the first district and an increasing Democratic majority in the second, the Whig majority of five in Poweshiek was not sufficient to make any material difference in the political complexion of either district. The chief merit of the law seems to have been that it tended to straighten the dividing line and so make the form of the districts more regular.


On January 24, 1857, Mr. Foster from the Senate committee on apportionment reported a bill to alter the boundaries of the congressional districts. The measure promptly passed both houses without amendment, and on January 28 became a law. By its terms, three counties (Des Moines, Louisa, and Washington) were detached from the second district and attached to the first. The reasons for this change are not far to seek. In the first place, the population of the second district had been increasing much more rapidly than that of the first. In 1849 the latter had numbered 86,899 inhabitants, while the former had only 68,074; but in 1856 the order of precedence was reversed, since the first district had but 222,120, whereas the population of the second had grown to 285,755. A slight change of boundaries was, therefore, warranted in order to restore equality. Moreover, several circumstances argued in favor of the transfer of the three counties mentioned in the act. It tended to equalize the population of the two districts, and yet guarded against the necessity of a too early readjustment, by giving the first district a slight excess of inhabitants to offset the more rapid increase in the second. Furthermore, it served to secure greater regularity in the boundaries and forms of the districts than any other arrangement would have done. But it seems also to have subserved partisan ends. In the congressional election of 1856 the second district returned a Republican majority of 6,017, while the first went Republican by only 955 votes. The second was safe; but no great change of sentiment would be requisite to give the first to the Democrats. The counties of Des Moines, Louisa, and Washington alone had, in 1856, given a majority of 862 for the Republican candidate. This vote could be shifted to the first district; and so, without endangering party success in the northern district, the Republican chances in case of general Democratic gains would be strengthened several fold. The outcome of the election of 1858 vindicated the wisdom of this precautionary step; for the Republican majorities were reduced to 2,739 in the second district and 600 in the first, while the three counties in question were carried by only 499 votes. This last number subtracted from the 600 would have left the dominant party with the uncomfortably narrow margin of 101 in the southern district. The act of 1857 had relieved the Republicans of great anxiety and fortified their success for the future.

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