Do Iowans support calling a state constitutional convention on Nov. 3? Since 1900, Iowa’s political insiders have argued that Iowans have known better than to call a convention on that decennial referendum question. But that 120-year history is more ambiguous than its use by opponents suggests.

Days after Iowans apparently approved the 1900 referendum, the Dubuque Times presciently predicted “the Legislature would find a way to avoid holding it.” From Election Eve, Nov. 6, to Nov. 27, the official county tally showed the referendum passing. Meanwhile, convention opponents, led by political insiders, spun the line that the majority vote (177,337 yes to 176,889 no) didn’t reflect Iowans’ true intentions because Iowans had mistakenly voted for the convention thinking it was a different, more popular referendum on the ballot. On Nov. 28, Iowa’s canvassing board suddenly announced the previous results incorrect because Tama County incorrectly tallied a thousand no-ballots.

The historical record provides no evidence that Tama’s revised count was incorrect. But it also provides no evidence that the canvassing board looked with similar diligence for other counting errors that might have favored the yes vote. Today, we have lots of experience with such close elections and know how prone they are to recounting abuses.

In retrospect, the insiders’ rationale for disparaging the voters in 1900 doesn’t explain why the average convention yes-vote on the three convention referendums between 1900 and 1920 averaged 50.18%. A better explanation is that Progressive Era advocates for good government, women’s suffrage, prohibition and labor rights tended to support convention calls not only in Iowa but elsewhere.

In 1920, the referendum passed by too large a margin for convention opponents to close the gap via found votes. Instead, the Legislature failed to pass the constitutionally required legislation to enable the convention, with the House and Senate each passing different enabling acts and then blaming the other for not negotiating a compromise. Legislators also claimed that calling a convention wasn’t necessary because they passed legislation satisfying the wants of one convention proponent. A more accurate if incomplete explanation for their behavior is that rural legislators feared a convention might reapportion legislative seats to give urban areas their fair share.

In 1960 and 1970, the convention calls came within a whisker of passing. In 1970, the call was even thought to have passed on Election Eve — a reprise of 1900 but without the same apparent shenanigans.

Today, political insiders are engaging in the same type of straw man argument when they argue that there are no specific popular issues Iowans want a constitutional convention to address. These insiders have never accepted the legitimacy of such issues because they are fundamentally opposed to the institution of a constitutional convention, which was designed by Iowa’s framers as a way to bypass the Legislature’s gatekeeping power over constitutional amendment. The framers’ concern was that the Legislature — and, by extension, the special interest groups that excel at influencing the Legislature — would fail to propose democracy enhancing amendments that might weaken their own power.

Such amendments fall into three broad categories:

  1. Legislative elections (e.g. redistricting, ballot initiative, campaign financing, ranked-choice voting, ethics, and term limits).
  2. The power of government branches that compete with the legislature (e.g., judiciary, executive, and constitutional convention).
  3. The rights the Legislature cannot take away from the people (e.g., speech, religion, assembly, right-to-know and privacy).

Despite the appeal of such specific questions, Iowans should ask themselves three general questions when they consider whether to support calling a constitutional convention:

  1. How efficiently and democratically does state government currently work?
  2. Is it dysfunctional partly because incumbent legislators of both parties won’t propose popular democratic reforms that would reduce their own power?
  3. Ware Iowa’s constitutional framers right that a convention can better propose reforms than the Legislature to address such dysfunction?

Let’s poll Iowans who understand the convention process to learn their answers to these questions.


J.H. Snider, a former fellow at Harvard University’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, is the editor of The Iowa State Constitutional Convention Clearinghouse, including Iowa Con Con 101, and author of Does the World Really Belong to the Living? The Decline of the Constitutional Convention in New York and Other US States, 1776–2015.

Source: Snider, J.H., 3 things Iowans should consider about constitutional convention referendum, Iowa City Press-Citizen, September 21, 2020.

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--J.H. Snider, Editor
The Iowa State Constitutional Convention Clearinghouse

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