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July 1st, 2010

Iowa Constitutional History

By Patti Brown

While Iowans know it isn’t wise to fix a fence that isn’t broken, they also know there are times when it is wise to replace or renew something that has become dated, or that lacks features which are needed or wanted. We replace machinery when it is no longer up to the job. We rebuild vital infrastructure to handle new demands.

We also have a democratic procedure in place to amend or revise our state’s constitution. That procedure is an automatic ballot initiative which asks voters every 10 years to approve or reject a constitutional convention. The process provides Iowans with the ability to deal with constitutional issues which lawmakers either refuse or fail to address.

Iowa’s State Constitution is 153 years old, drafted in Iowa City between January 19 and March 5 of 1857, four years before the U.S. Civil War. Iowans narrowly approved the document 40,311 to 38,681 in August. It was the state’s second constitution and was based in large part on one approved 11 years earlier in 1846 when Iowa became a state. An earlier constitution, written in 1844 prior to statehood was presented to and approved by the United States Senate in 1845, but was then rejected twice by residents of the Iowa Territory.

The process of writing or amending a constitution is no mean feat. It is a serious matter that requires thoughtful deliberation and political patience, but it is not one that the voters should fear because the source of all governmental power comes not from the politicians, nor the bureaucrats, but from the people themselves. In a July 12, 1816 letter to historian and author Samuel Kercheval, Thomas Jefferson wrote that some “look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence, and deem them like the arc of the covenant, too sacred to be touched. They ascribe to the men of the preceding age wisdom more than human, and suppose what they did to be beyond amendment.”

When Iowa voters go to the polls this November they will be asked if they want to call a constitutional convention.

There are two ways the state constitution can be amended. The first way is through a legislative initiative. A proposed amendment must come before two successive sessions of the Iowa General Assembly. The measure needs to pass –twice– by a simple majority of legislators in both the House and in the Senate (a general assembly is a two-year process, so if a proposed amendment is passed in one of the two years, the measure must be brought up again during the next two-year general assembly).  A proposed amendment that has passed the necessary steps before the Iowa General Assembly is then placed before Iowa voters for an up or down vote.

The process is necessarily cumbersome to protect the constitution from being amended on a whim. Written in 1857, four years before the U.S. Civil War, the Iowa State Constitution has been amended 27 times, most recently in 2008 when Iowa voters approved an amendment to remove the word “idiot”, an archaic reference to people with mental handicaps, from the Constitution. This November, Iowa voters will also be asked to approve an amendment that would set aside a portion of a future sales tax increase for natural resource projects.

The other way the Iowa State Constitution can be changed is for a majority of Iowa voters to approve a constitutional convention on a statewide ballot.  The Iowa General Assembly may also place the question before voters at other times. A convention is then convened and delegates, who can propose changes to the constitution, are elected. Revisions are then put before Iowans in a subsequent election to approve or reject. Again the process to amend or revise the constitution is weighty in order to protect the document from knee-jerk changes.

The elected convention delegates can propose revisions to the constitution. Those revisions must then be ratified by Iowa voters before becoming law.

The  Iowa Constitution—Article 10, Section 3—was amended in 1964 to provide for the automatic ballot initiative  every 10 years beginning in 1970. The 22nd amendment states that voters are to be asked “Shall there be a Convention to revise the Constitution, and propose amendment or amendments to same?”

Since first appearing on ballot in 1970, Iowa voters have rejected the call to convention every time and by significant margins. In 1970 the vote was 204,517 to 214,663 (48.79% to 61.29%); in 1980 the vote was 404,249 to 640,130 (38.71% to 61.29%); in 1990 the vote was 179,762 to 491,179 (26.79% to 73.21%); and in 2000 the vote was 300,468 to 626,251 (34.42% to 67.58%)

In November, Iowa voters will again have the opportunity to decide if the time is right to convene a constitutional convention.  The process is somewhat uncertain and many people fear both the process and putting the process in the hands of the voters.  In his letter to Kercheval , Jefferson affirmed that, “I am not among those who fear the people.”

Jefferson also believed that the constitutional process needed to be revisited at stated periods, “Let us provide in our constitution for its revision at stated periods…Each generation is as independent as the one preceding, as that was of all which had gone before. It has then, like them, a right to choose for itself the form of government it believes most promotive of its own happiness; consequently, to accommodate to the circumstances in which it finds itself that received from its predecessors.”

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About the Author

Polly Twocents
Polly Twocents is the pseudonym for the political commentary of Patti Brown, a partner in the Iowa Policy Institute, a research and analysis firm specializing in public policy issues. Patti is an Iowa mother of five who has a masters degree in journalism with a minor in political science from Iowa State University and an masters in social work from the University of Iowa. Patti worked for many years as a social worker in hospital, hospice and mental health settings. In addition she has also been a staff writer and columnist for The Catholic Mirror and a writer for The Des Moines Register. She is unabashedly and consistently pro-life and pro-family. As a bleeding heart conservative, Patti believes in a limited, representative government, personal responsibility, individual opportunity, and free enterprise.

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