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In 1971, Mary Garst of Coon Rapids, IA and Betty Kitzman of Ames, IA argued quite forcefully that the League of Women Voters of Iowa should join a petition that would overturn the state redistricting plan, based on 1970 census data. The League of Women Voters of Iowa had studied reapportionment since 1955. In 1963, they adopted a position of bipartisan, non-legislative redistricting authority. In 1968, the League was instrumental in pushing a state-wide referendum that adopted Iowa constitutional provisions on reapportionment that stipulated any qualified elector had the right to appeal the Legislature-created plan to the Iowa Supreme Court.

Garst and Kitzman, as experts on reapportionment, saw the gerrymandering of the districts done by incumbents. Several legislators had “just happened to stop by to look at the plan as it was being drawn and suggested moving lines just a bit” so that their districts would stay intact. Garst and Kitzman did not think this a good practice. They spent a great deal of time working with mimeographed documents on apportionment, and eventually produced a reapportionment map with virtually equal districts. Garst and Kitzman did this reapportionment work on a computer that took up a whole room at Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids, IA.

Betty Kitzman, occasionally nicknamed “Mrs. Reapportionment,” was the “star witness” at the court hearing. “Her testimony was concise and accurate, with just the right touch of humor. In cross-examination, the defendants’ attorney asked, ‘Mrs. Kitzman, did you even think of having a Republican on your committee?’ She smiled and said, ‘Sir, I am a Republican.’ Obviously frustrated, he sputtered, ‘But you’re an impartial Republican.’ Even Justice Moore had a hard time keeping a straight face.”

On January 14, the Court made a unanimous opinion that the Legislature’s plan violated both the U.S. and Iowa constitutions. The Court said “The relevance of the League of Women Voters plan is not its availability as an alternate plan but rather its demonstration of applicants’ principal thesis: namely, that plans more equal in population can be developed.”

Despite the below zero temperatures in Iowa that day, League members and other Iowans celebrated this decision. Reassured that “a citizen group made up of qualified electors could challenge a redistricting plan, and that the Iowa Supreme Court could come down hard on a legislature’s attempt to violate the law to help incumbents win elections.”

Thanks to the careful attention of the League of Women Voters of Iowa, there is minimal gerrymandering of districts in Iowa to protect incumbents. According to Linda Meloy, “the challenge to the redistricting plan in 1972 illustrates the power of action taken by informed citizens for the protection of rights. It also shows that involvement in the legislative process can promote new and better ways for government to serve its citizens.”

The League of Women Voters, founded by Iowan Carrie Chapman Catt in the 19th century as part of the women’s suffrage movement, wanted to provide instruction about the structure and function of government to prepare women for the right to vote. Catt and the National League board designed a method for data-based study on issues facing decision-makers in government. This non-partisan process informs the League’s position statements at the local, state, and national levels of government. The League of Women Voters of Iowa focuses specifically on services for children and families, education, the environment, good government, human rights, and voting rights.

Sometimes we might feel powerless to enact change, and other times we seem to institute change so that we can feel a sense of power in the midst of powerlessness. But I find it reassuring to know that regular citizens who care, people like Mary Garst and Betty Kitzman, can do meticulous research about a topic that they care about, present their case, and do good work for the larger community.

And may we all be able to give testimony that is “concise” and “accurate, with just the right touch of humor”….

Linda Meloy, And They Persisted…A Century of Impact by Iowa Leagues, (Iowa City, IA: League of Women Voters of Johnson County, 2020).

Rebecca Koerselman

Rebecca Koerselman teaches history at Northwestern College in Orange City, IA.

8 Comments

  • Still they persisted. What a wonderful success story toward justice for Iowans. Come on over and reform Illinois. Oh wait…

  • Jon Lunderberg says:

    Well done. When I read the title, I didn’t think I’d finish the essay – you hooked me with a great story. Thank you.

    Where have all the “impartial” Republicans (and “impartial” Democrats) gone? ~an “impartial” Libertarian

  • Pam Adams says:

    Thank you Rebecca for another thoughtful essay.

  • Rowland Van Es, Jr says:

    Nice story about Iowa. They do this work in all 50 states and in over 700 communities. According to their national website, “For 100 years, we have been a nonpartisan, activist, grassroots organization that believes voters should play a critical role in democracy.” Thank God for work of the League of Women Voters.

    • Rodney Haveman says:

      Rowland,
      I know they claim to have done this in all 50 states but to limited success. It seems that almost all incumbents do this sort of thing, often horse trading between democrats and republicans. It has gotten to the point where politicians pick their voters more than voters pick there representatives. If you look at almost any disctrict maps nowadays they look impressionist art rather than balanced voter opportunities.
      And it is true that both sides do this sort of thing, but one side seems to have taken it to a rather effective and incisive science.
      Hoping for greater change and more independent panels, but not holding my breath.

  • John K says:

    Michigan will now have an “independent” panel do the redistricting. Hoping for an end to “gerrymandering.” Hope all is well in Iowa (and beyond).

  • Mark Speyer says:

    I’m impressed by all the translations and audible versions of this fine article: How and why did that come about?

    Mark Speyer, New York

  • Rebecca, once more I am grateful for your thoughtful writing not to mention your Godly sense of history. You are the person that I always wanted to be! Thank you.

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