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The extraordinary election of ’32: How Minnesota Republicans’ gerrymandering backfired

Minnesota filled its nine seats in the U.S. House that year not by having nine separate district-by-district elections, but by holding one big statewide vote.

Hoping to fend off FL gains in the U.S. House, the Republican-controlled Minnesota Legislature of 1932 drew a map so stacked in favor of Republican candidates that even the Minneapolis Journal, a Republican paper, called it “the rankest gerrymander scheme ever conceived by a Minnesota legislature.”
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

We’re Minnesotans. We’re civil. We’re rule obeyers. Or are we?

With partisan gerrymandering of congressional district lines back in the news (and heading for the Supreme Court) I’d like to tell you a story from not-so-ancient Minnesota political history that I suspect most of us don’t know (I didn’t, but I looked it up) that will surprise you and either horrify or make you laugh.

Before most of us were born, Minnesota was a solid Republican state. Starting with statehood in 1858, we gave our electoral votes to the Republican presidential ticket, starting with Abe Lincoln, 18 straight times, until going for FDR in 1932.

Likewise, during that period, we elected 18 Republican governors and just three Democrats. That’s pretty red.

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Since we turned blue in 1932, we have been among the bluest of states in presidential elections, having given our electoral votes to the Democratic ticket in 18 of the last 21 elections.

But, as you probably know, the big change in the 1930s was not simply from red to blue. First we went FL, which stands for Farmer Labor, which is why, to this day, we call our Democrats DFLers. OK, you knew that. I’m working around the partisan gerrymandering angle.

The radical Floyd B. Olson

In 1930, the fairly radical leftist Farmer-Labor Party broke through the state’s Republican leanings, electing the FL’s great early hero, Floyd B. Olson, governor. FLers didn’t consider themselves just liberals. It was the Depression, and radical ideas were loose in the land. (“I am not a liberal,” Olson famously said. “I am what I want to be: a radical.”)

So 1930 was the year Olson broke through, and many FL victories followed in that decade.

But the 1930 election that brought Olson to the governorship still elected a shrunken Republican majority to the Legislature. And Republicans were determined to hang on to as much power as they could, including in its congressional delegation.

Floyd B. Olson
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Gov. Floyd B. Olson

In 1931-32, that Republican-controlled Legislature had to draw a new congressional district map based on the 1930 census. That census had knocked Minnesota down from a 10-member delegation to nine. Minnesota had 10 members of the U.S. House, nine Republicans and one FLer. But the FL was surging and any honest new district map would have cost the Republicans many of those nine seats in Congress.

So, the way these things often go, the Republicans decided to do a little gerrymandering, or maybe more than a little. And it backfired on them, big time. 

I rely for this account, almost entirely, on a fabulous journal article, written at the time by a University of Minnesota political scientist named Roger V. Shumate and published in the American Political Science Review issue of February 1933, just after all the chips had landed.

I wish I could link you to the entire article, but to get there you would have to sign up for JSTOR, a digital library/archive of scholarly journal articles. (JSTOR stands for “Journal Storage.”) You can follow this link if you are motivated. It didn’t cost me anything to get as far as the full Shumate article.

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‘Rankest gerrymander scheme’

The JSTOR article in question is titled “Minnesota’s Congressional Election at Large,” which refers to the fact that in 1932 Minnesota filled its nine seats in the U.S. House not by having nine separate district-by-district elections, but by holding one big statewide vote in which everyone could vote for nine congressmen to represent the whole state “at large.” This has never happened before or since and is fairly alien to the basic idea of how representation works in the case of the U.S. House. That’s the big deal I advertised at the top. Here’s how it came down.

Hoping to fend off FL gains in the U.S. House, the Republican-controlled Minnesota Legislature of 1932 drew a map so stacked in favor of Republican candidates that even the Minneapolis Journal, a Republican paper, called it “the rankest gerrymander scheme ever conceived by a Minnesota legislature.”

With no subtlety whatsoever, the map “lumps as many farmer labor voters as possible into a single congressional district in order to nullify that party’s power in other districts,” the Journal reported. The districts didn’t even have equal numbers of voters in them. Quite possibly, if the election had been held according to this map, Republicans would have come away with an 8-1 advantage. In a state with a surging plurality and possibly majority of FL voters, that would have been some strong gerrymandering.

I can’t imagine, and Shumate doesn’t say in his journal article, whether or how or why the Republican map-drawers thought the radical new FL governor would sign the bill establishing this map. But, of course, Olson didn’t. He vetoed it.

Republicans still had a bare majority in the Legislature, nowhere near the two-thirds majority necessary to override Olson’s veto. But they refused to draw another congressional district map, claiming that the bill to redraw the congressional districts was something the governor couldn’t veto.

Case goes to the U.S. Supreme Court

The question of how Minnesota would elect its U.S. House delegation went to court and all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, with the Republicans apparently believing that the court would impose their map (perhaps because most of the justices were Republicans?).

But Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes, a lifelong Republican (and 1916 Republican presidential nominee) couldn’t see how a bill that was vetoed by the governor, and that veto not overridden, was a law that could be upheld. It was just a bill that failed to become law.

As for the argument that that this wasn’t the kind of bill over which the governor had veto power, Hughes noted that all previous similar election districting map drawing in Minnesota history had been done by a bill, sent to the governor for signature or veto.

So the Republican map stayed vetoed, which meant there was no map. The election season was under way. The Legislature was out of session.

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The pre-existing, less-gerrymandered map from the 1930 election couldn’t be used, especially since it was a map of 10 districts and Minnesota was now entitled to just nine seats in the U.S. House. Hughes wrote:

“Where, as in the case of Minnesota, the number of representatives has been decreased, there is a different situation, as existing districts are not at all adapted to the new apportionment. It follows that, in such a case, unless and until new districts are created, all representatives allotted to the state must be elected by the state at large. “

Here’s the Supreme Court ruling.

So, yikes, Minnesota had to start from scrap and elect nine members of Congress, in an at-large situation, meaning all U.S. House candidates would be running statewide with no requirement that they live in, or seek to represent any particular congressional district (there were, after all, no districts).

The top nine vote getters would all go to Congress. Each of them would represent not a district but the state at large. And this had to be organized and done, on relatively short notice, in a state with three viable statewide parties (the Dems, the Repubs and the FLers) and a small fourth party (the Communists).

Before primary, 88 candidates

Eighty-eight candidates offered themselves for Congress in this free-for all.

Three hurriedly organized primaries knocked it down to 30 candidates, (the top nine finishers in the primary among Dems, likewise nine Repubs, nine FLers and just three Communists). All 30 would be on the ballot and each voter could vote for nine candidates.

All of this came to a head on General Election Day in November 1932, when voters were also electing a governor, all other statewide offices, and legislators, plus assorted other offices. Here’s how it turned out:

FLer incumbent Gov. Olson got 51 percent of the vote for governor. That’s closer to a landslide than it sounds, since it was a three-way race. The runner-up, Republican Earle Brown, got just 32 percent. (The Democrat, John E. Regan, got just 16 percent, which helps you begin to understand why the Dems would eventually merge with the FLers in the Humphrey era of the 1940s.)

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But if Olson got more than 50 percent, and each voter could vote for nine candidates for Congress, if all the FLers voted a straight FL ticket, the FL could have swept all nine congressional seats. Interestingly, to me at least, that didn’t happen.

Many voters used fewer than the nine votes to which they were entitled, and many divided their choices among nominees from two or three different parties, which is fun to think about in these days of tribalized party loyalty.

In the end, Depression Era Minnesota voters elected five FL congressmen (yes they were all men), three Republicans and one Democrat for the nine seats. The Democrat (remember Dems were by far the weakest of the three major parties) was probably helped by the fact that Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt was at the top of the ballot, and carried Minnesota by a 24-percentage-point landslide. The FL, a Minnesota-only party, had, no presidential nominee and had made a deal to support FDR.

Nine of the 10 incumbent Minnesota members of Congress offered themselves for re-election, but only two of them made it back to the House. (One was the only FLer in the previous delegation; the other incumbent who won was a Republican, who finished ninth and barely got to go back to Washington.)

Francis Shoemaker of Red Wing

If you’ve stayed tuned this long, your reward is the story of one of the winners, the eight-place finisher, named Francis Shoemaker of Red Wing, a radical farm organizer, oft-arrested brawler and outspoken (to put it mildly) Red Wing editor, who made an intriguing choice for Depression-era voters in the mood to shake things up.

Curt Brown, who writes about Minnesota history for the Strib, did a great recent profile of Shoemaker, with plenty of laugh-out-loud lines. Curt didn’t focus on the strange overall election but on the colorful Shoemaker, who had been released from Leavenworth federal prison a year before he was elected to Congress. Curt summarizes:

“He wound up in that federal prison in Kansas for nearly a year on charges of sending scurrilous, defamatory material through the mail. The crux of the case: He had addressed a letter to prominent Red Wing banker Robert W. Putnam thusly: ‘Robber of Widows and Orphans, Red Wing, Minn., in care of Temple of Greed and Chicanery.’ Postal authorities successfully sought an indictment.

In his weekly newspaper, the Organized Farmer, Shoemaker called Putnam a tyrant, dictator and shatterer of families, challenging the banker to sue.”

Shoemaker finished in eighth place in a race with nine winners. He snarkily bragged: “I go from the penitentiary to Congress, not like a great majority of Congressmen who go from Congress to the penitentiary.”

After his term in the House, he never won another election (which probably would have required him to finish higher than eighth place), but he didn’t stop trying. He ran four more times for the U.S. House and once for the Senate.

By the 1934 election, Minnesota was back to nine districts with one congressman from each. The Repubs won five, the FL three and the Dems one. While the FL continued to win some elections, the Republicans were soon back to winning at least a plurality of the U.S. House races, until the Dems and the FL merged to form the DFL in the late 1940s.