The Bedsheet Ballot

When congressional redistricting fails to have new district lines in effect in time for the next election, everybody runs at large. It’s been almost eighty years since Missourians were faced with that situation.

Under those circumstances, the number of people who want to go to Congress can become quite large, so large that the ballot becomes known as a “bedsheet ballot” because it seems to be about as big as a sheet. It really isn’t, but I did get to vote a bedsheet ballot one year when I was still a registered voter in Illinois. We don’t want that to happen here.

Former Cape Girardeau Southeast Missourian reporter Marc Powers, who now works as the information person for the House Minority Caucus, is an indefatigable reader of government records, documents, books, etc. If it’s arcane, Marc knows it (or it seems so).

He asked me during the legislative session about the at-large congressional races in Missouri in 1931 and why they happened. I’ve been around a long time but not THAT long so I was no help. Undeterred, Marc kept nosing around.

This e-mail arrived yesterday. It’s interesting history at a time when Missouri worries whether it’s going to drop to only eight members of congress. The story begins when we had TWICE that many. Here’s Marc:

“I found the answer to the question I asked you during veto session about the back story behind the 1931 congressional redistricting effort in Missouri that resulted in the state’s 13 members of Congress being elected on an at-large, statewide basis in 1932.

According to an August 1931 article in The American Political Science Review by Lloyd M. Short of the University of Missouri, the main congressional redistricting proposal under consideration that year by the Democratic-controlled General Assembly was expected to result in a partisan division of eight reliably Democratic districts, four reliably Republican districts and one that could go either way.

Republicans opposed the proposal, as did a number of Democrats due to the fact that with Missouri’s congressional delegation dropping from 16 to 13 members for the 1932 elections, some Democratic incumbents would have been put into districts with other incumbents. As a result, there initially weren’t enough votes to pass the plan in either chamber, although Senate Democrats eventually mustered a bare majority.

With the House still unwilling to go along, Gov. Henry Caulfield, a Republican, issued a special message to the General Assembly in which he offered a “compromise” plan. However, Caulfield’s proposal would have given Republicans safe majorities in at least nine and perhaps even 10 of the 13 districts.

Caulfield’s so-called compromise had the effect of galvanizing House Democrats around the proposal that previously passed the Senate. Caulfield vetoed it one day after it received final legislative approval. Efforts to enact another redistricting plan during the remaining weeks of the 1931 legislative session went nowhere.

In the end, Caulfield’s veto apparently backfired since Democrats swept all 13 at-large districts in the 1932 elections. When in 1933 the General Assembly – now with a Democratic governor in office — finally enacted traditional congressional districts for the 1934 elections, Democrats maintained a 12-1 advantage”.

Thanks, Marc. Let’s hope for no bedsheets in 2012.

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