There has been some discussion on this site about the question that is on the ballot this year on whether to call a Constitutional Convention. The Convention of 1857 has been cited as precedent, but there is another.
Article X section 3 of the constitution was rewritten in an amendment that was approved by the voters in 1964, which is why the current version of the constitution reads “one thousand nine hundred seventy.” This has confused some writers into thinking that the provision dates from 1964. The provision for a decennial question on whether to call a constitutional convention has been in the Constitution of Iowa since the 1857 constitution was written. In compliance with that Constitution, the question “Shall there be a Convention to revise the Constitution, and amend the same?” was first on the ballot in 1870.
Most of the 14 times the decennial question has appeared on the ballot it has come and gone with little notice. One notable exception was in 1920, when the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation sent a letter to its 140,000 members on the Wednesday before the election urging a yes vote on the convention question. The letter advocated a constitutional convention to update the constitution “to meet the needs of modern agriculture,” particularly to allow “collective bargaining for farmers” and protections for farm tenancy.
The result of the election on the decennial question in 1920 was 279,652 yes to 221,763 no. It was therefore up to the 39th General Assembly meeting in 1921 to provide for an election of delegates and to set procedures to call the Constitutional Convention. The range of options considered by the 39th General Assembly in calling for that Constitutional Convention is instructive as to the range of considerations for the 84th General Assembly should the “Yes” vote prevail this November.
Legislation providing for the Constitutional Convention passed both the House and Senate of the 39th General Assembly. The House version provided for a partisan election of 108 delegates, one for each House district. The Senate, after considering using the existing 50 Senate districts, passed a version that provided for a non-partisan election of 60 delegates. The 50 Senators at the time had been elected in districts set by the 1857 Constitution; those districts had never been re-apportioned as required by the Constitution. A conference committee was appointed to resolve the differences between the House and Senate Bills.
The leadership in the legislature had asked the Farm Bureau specifically what in the constitution should be changed; the Farm Bureau never provided specifics. The legislators determined that there was nothing in the Constitution, as it then existed, to prevent them from passing legislation to do what the Farm Bureau wanted, though before the session the Farm Bureau had expressed its reservations. The legislators considered what other issues might be considered by a Constitutional Convention. The only other issue was to allow women to run for the legislature. Not knowing of any issues that could not be passed in the usual manner and no great demand to greatly revise the Constitution, sentiment against calling a convention was strong, especially in the House.
As the time set for the end of the session approached, there was much business remaining, including the legislation on the Constitutional Convention. Though the session was to end at noon the clocks in the legislative chambers were stopped at 11:40 AM; a very old trick occasionally resorted to in recent times. During the lunch hour the conference committee on the Constitutional Convention met. The House members in the conference committee were ready to stop the legislation if they could; to get any bill at all the Senators conceded every major provision of the House Bill; though there were minor changes. Since it was changed from the bill as previously passed, the bill went to the House for consideration of the conference bill.
House consideration of the conference report commenced at 4:00 in the afternoon. It was introduced without enthusiasm and without the endorsement of the Conference Committee members. After debate, the House passed the bill, but there was quickly a motion to reconsider. In the debate on the motion to reconsider, it was pointed out that no legislator could be compelled to vote against his conscience, according to Iowa Constitution Article 3, section 10 under Legislative Department as follows:
“Every member of the General Assembly shall have the liberty to dissent from, or protest against any act or resolution which he may think injurious to the public, or an individual, and have the reasons for his dissent entered on the journals; &c”
If no legislator could be compelled to vote for a measure, it was reasoned, the legislature could not be compelled to produce any particular result. The House voted 71 to 17 in favor of the motion to reconsider, and then on reconsideration rejected the bill itself. The House followed with a motion to recall the previously passed bill from the Senate to prevent further Senate action. After the House action the Senate attempted to strip the Senate amendments from the House Bill to pass the House bill unamended; that motion was defeated by a vote of 34 to 15. The legislature adjourned without passing the legislation necessary to call a Constitutional Convention; it had in the end, been defeated in both chambers. There was no convention.
Although the Constitution of Iowa says the legislature “shall” call the convention, the only method of enforcing that requirement is the political response of the legislators’ constituents. It was not lost on the legislators in 1921 that while the “Yes” vote was the majority in the election, it amounted to only 30 per cent of the voters in that election. The legislators were also aware that the sentiment of their constituents was against the Convention, regardless of the results of the election. The precedent set by the actions of the 39th General Assembly is that the legislature does not have to call the Convention in response to the decennial question if they are willing to deal with the political heat.
This episode also illustrates the range of decisions that would have to be made by the legislature if the majority vote on constitutional convention question is “yes.”
The election could be either partisan or non-partisan. The delegates in 1857 were chosen in partisan elections. In 1921 one chamber proposed partisan the other non-partisan elections.
The election of delegates could be based on House Districts as proposed by the 1921 House; Senate Districts as in the 1857 Constitutional Convention; or something else as proposed by the Senate in 1921. The districts could be based on the districts of the Legislature, but the two chambers could compromise on another plan. The districts could be based on districting from the 2000 census or the process could wait until the 2010 redistricting is available.
The Convention could be structured to allow sitting legislators to be delegates or not. The 1857 convention commenced during the session of the General Assembly, so legislators could not also be delegates. In 1921 it was allowed that legislators could also be delegates, and the Convention was to be scheduled accordingly. It was anticipated in 1921 that there would be a special session beginning in January 1922 to deal with re-codification of Iowa Law and that the Convention would follow.
The impact of this turmoil would depend in part on whether the election of delegates is a special election or part of the General Election Process. Delegates to the Convention of 1857 were chosen in a special election; the delegates in the 1921 legislation would as well. If the process waited for the General Election, the convention would be delayed a year.
The Convention of 1857 set its own rules and procedures and the date for consideration of the results, the convention of 1922 would have done the same.
There are many sitting legislators who would be very tempted to run for the delegate seats for the rare chance to participate in a Constitutional Convention, whether they have to give up their seat in the legislature or not. Depending on the number of delegates and delegate districts, the election could feature sitting Representatives and Senators regardless of party opposing each other, with county and city officials and retired politicians in the mix as well. If legislators could not serve as delegates, many would give up their legislative office for the rare opportunity, resulting in a potentially large change in the make-up of the legislature.
To an amateur historian who is interested in the political intrigues, issues, and strategies surrounding the Constitution of Iowa, there is no way that the political impacts of the call for a convention would be uninteresting. That would, however, not be sufficient reason to pass the measure.
This article is based primarily on newspaper articles of 1921 reporting the events of the day. Papers included are the Adam County Free Press, Waterloo Evening Courier, Carroll Times, Iowa Homestead, Muscatine Journal, and others. The most extensive and detailed of the articles was published in the Cedar Rapids Gazette April 13, 1921, page 1 column 1, “Clark Tells How Con Con was Killed in the Iowa Legislature.”
Items on the 1857 Convention are from the Debates of the Convention and from Benjamin Schambaugh’s several short books on the Constitution of Iowa.
Vote totals are from the Iowa Official Register, 1921-22
About the Author: Chris is an amateur Iowa historian and anonymous commenter who’s name you would not recognize if you were told. Chris is college edjikaded, but not in history.
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