Legislative Malapportionment & Rural Domination

Thomas G. Alexander
Utah, The Right Place

African Americans and Native Americans were not the only ones to suffer discrimination.  Urbanites of all colors endured abuse as well at the hands of a conservative, rural-dominated minority. Between 1931 and 1950, the legislature had refused to reapportion itself in spite of the Utah Constitution’s mandate. By the 1960s, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah shamed themselves with the most malapportioned state houses of representatives in the West. Daggett County, for instance, had one representative for 362 people while Weber County, the least represented, had one for every 16,586 people. Nevertheless, most rural legislators agreed with Orval Hafen of St. George, who became a major defender of rural overrepresentation after his election in 1952.

In popular votes, the people of the state testified that they detested such malapportionment. In 1954, for instance, the voters soundly defeated a constitutional amendment proposed by the rural-dominated legislature and supported by a whispering campaign throughout LDS congregations that would have assured continued rural domination by guaranteeing each county one senator regardless of population. Responding to the public mood, the legislature reapportioned itself in 1955 after the constitutional amendment failed. Still, after the decennial census of 1960, an effort by the Democratically controlled legislature to reapportion itself fell victim to Governor George Clyde’s veto in 1961.

The 1962 decision of the U.S. Supreme Court on the rural-dominated Tennessee legislature in Baker v. Carr led Utah’s legislature to reconsider reapportionments in 1963. Clyde reluctantly signed the bill that the legislature passed, but since the act did not provide for equal representation based on population—partly because the Utah Constitution guaranteed a seat in the state house of representatives to every county—three Salt Lake County residents filed a suit in federal district court challenging the reapportionment. The decision of the Supreme Court in Reynolds v. Sims (1964) sustained their views by requiring states to give equal weight to the votes of all people; in 1965, under the supervision of a panel of three federal judges, the legislature realigned the state’s house, senate, and federal congressional districts.