What equality?

Anamosa Gazette editorial, 1999

Law says "one person, one vote," and that's that. Yet, despite the east with which the Iowa General Assembly adopted the 1991 version of reapportionment, we now are discovering that our fixation on fairness has the potential to backfire.

Anamosa is a case in point. Readers probably noticed a front-page article in The Gazette Wednesday describing the consequences of strict adherence to the letter of the law. A community divided into four wards for city council purposes, Anamosa boasts a population of roughly 5,100 — presenting a seemingly simple mathematical problem of carving out wards of 1,275 or so residents. And so it occurred: Wards 1 and 2 got 1,279 residents, Ward 3, 1,260 and Ward 4, 1,282.

What looks equitable on paper, however, loses a great deal in the translation into reality. As the Gazette noted, a significant percentage of the 1,279 people assigned to Ward 2 can't vote. Only a handful of the 1,157 residents of the Iowa Men's Reformatory could vote if they so desired, a consequence of being confined on something less than a felony conviction. And that situation throws the entire principle of one person, one vote out of whack.

Only 122 of Ward 2's residents live outside the institution's walls. Moreover, only a fraction of them are of voting age. Thus in contrast with voters in the city's three other wards, the relatively small band of eligible voters in Ward 2 have disproportionate representation in the next city election. Not that it is expected to present a problem in the community.

However, we applaud the resolve by city officials to examine alternatives to a process which incorporates an institution (particularly one where residents are prohibited from voting) into the mechanism for setting political boundaries. When that extra population distorts the outcome of the reapportionment process, the objective of equal representation has been lost. Such features must be considered in future remap years.

We must assume, however that Anamosa and other communities similarly affected recognize that they can't have things both ways. If prison populations are exempted for purposes of setting political boundaries, they must also be excluded when communities line up for funds distributed by state and federal governments on a per capita basis.