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A Lesson on Compromise from 1931

December 27, 2011 By Ben Schweigert, Guest Commentary

Governor Dayton and the Legislature are deadlocked over redistricting. The issue is already in the courts, and, unless the parties reach a surprise agreement, a judicial panel will create Minnesota’s new congressional and legislative districts.

Minnesota faced a similar redistricting standoff in 1931—but it turned out very differently.

The 1930 election had left state government divided, with Progressive Floyd B. Olson as governor and conservative controlling the Legislature. Yet by 1931, progressives seemed poised for a huge win in the 1932 elections. The 1930 census required Minnesota to draw new congressional districts, and the conservatives hoped to use this process to protect their incumbents. (Unlike today, courts did not draw congressional districts, and no one knew what would happen if the two sides failed to agree on a plan.)

The Legislature sent its congressional redistricting bill to Olson on the third-to-last day of the session, daring him to veto it when little time remained to pass a new one.

The bill was a terrible gerrymander. It protected conservative incumbents with safe, small districts—one with only 228,596 residents. At the same time, it packed progressive voters into gigantic districts, one with 344,500 people and another along the Dakota border with an arm stretching east 175 miles to encompass a single ward of Minneapolis.

Olson called the bluff and vetoed the bill. Conservatives countered, passing a resolution declaring that the plan did not need the governor’s signature, noting that the U.S. Constitution gave state legislatures the power to regulate elections and made no mention of governors. The Legislature then adjourned.

Litigation began almost immediately. The Minnesota Supreme Court sided with the Legislature. It declared that the redistricting plan was the law and that the governor’s veto had no effect, despite the fact that Minnesota—like nearly every other state—had always submitted its redistricting plans to the governor in the past.

The U.S. Supreme Court reversed the lower court, in a unanimous decision. As Olson’s veto left the state with no validly enacted congressional districts, the court declared, the state must conduct its congressional election at-large.

This would allow progressives to apply their statewide strength to all nine congressional seats, and erase the conservative incumbents’ advantages.

The public widely viewed the at-large election as just punishment for the Legislature’s attempted gerrymander. One constituent wrote, “these birds that build their nest for personal gain should sit in it.” Another wrote, “They mixed their medicine, let them take it.” A third declared that the Legislature “had the opportunity at the previous session to straighten out that thing and they deliberately refused to do it, thinking that they would get you in a hole.”

When voters went to the polls on November 8, the ballot they received was a mess, listing nine candidates from each of the three major parties, three Communists, and room for nine write-ins. But the rules were simple: each voter could vote for nine candidates; the top nine vote-getters would go to Congress.

The results proved the progressives’ strategy a success. Together, they received 64% of the vote and took six of the nine seats. Conservatives, who had held all but one seat before the election, won only three, and voters returned to office only one conservative incumbent.

After the election, the Governor and the Legislature quickly reached agreement on a set of districts, largely resembling Olson’s previous proposals.

Today, at-large elections for Congress are a thing of the past. The voting reforms of the 1960s empowered courts to draw districts where the political branches of government fail to do so. For the most part, this is a good thing—perhaps preferable to politicians drawing districts. But the way we do things now is not the only way, and maybe not even always the best way.

In drawing districts, we should ensure there is enough economic, social, ethnic and racial diversity so that all public policy goals are ensured a strong voice in our policy debates.

Ben Schweigert grew up in St Paul's Midway neighborhood. He clerked for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, has conducted research for the U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, and worked for the Minnesota House of Representatives. He is currently a lawyer in New York City.

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