One Person, One Vote, Many Cameras
As I was watching the fireworks celebrating our nation’s birthday the other night, I found that my thoughts kept circling back to the same two questions. The first was “why the hell is everyone taping this on their phones”? What purpose could this possibly serve? Do people ever go back and watch videos of fireworks displays? Why?
Once I accepted that nothing good would come of this vein of grumpy techno-phobic thinking, I began pondering the principle of “One person, one vote”. With two minor exceptions, every single elected office in the United States must adhere to this rule. Simply put, everyone is entitled to the same amount of representation, and giving one group of people disproportionate voting power over another is a violation of the latter group’s Constitutional rights.
This may seem obvious, but over time some regions thrive while others stagnate, so elected bodies inevitably fall out of sync with the populations that they represent. For centuries British Parliament contained what were known as “Rotten Boroughs”. These were seats in Parliament that represented areas that were thriving during the late Middle Ages but had since passed into obscurity. As a result the handful of people that remained had far more say in their government than citizens in larger towns.
As you can imagine this led to some serious problems. Beyond the basic injustice of the whole arrangement, this created an environment ripe for corruption. In the 17th century some enterprising sugar magnates realized that these seats could be bought on the cheap, and soon enough there was a caucus of Parliamentarians voting down every attempt to import sugar from French-held islands or otherwise break their monopoly.
Then, as now, incumbency had it advantages. As long as they stuck together it was difficult to dislodge the sugar barons and reform the system. Which was one of the reasons the American Founders wrote the Census into the Constitution. If Congressional seats had to be reapportioned every ten years based on population, then it would prevent a Rotten Boroughs problem from developing here in the first place.
The Senate required a different calculus. The Founders realized, of course, that by giving two seats to every state that some people would have more representation than others, but this compromise was necessary to get all the relevant parties on board with the Union. However they did not conceive of the massive population differentials between the states that we have now.
In the 1790 census the two most populous states, Virginia and Pennsylvania, each had about 110,000 voting age males. The smallest, Delaware had about 12,000. The average for all the states was about 50,000. So the largest states were ten times bigger than the smallest, and twice as big as the median.
Fast forward to today. California has 40 million people, Wyoming has 600,000. Every citizen of Wyoming has 66 times more representation in the Senate than a citizen of California. Since the Electoral College is apportioned based on a state’s total Congressional representatives (Congresspeople plus Senators), a voter in Wyoming has 3.6 times more say in the Presidential election than a voter in California.
This is not to pick on Wyoming. It’s lovely. In my experience the boulder-strewn moonscape of eastern Wyoming is the most hauntingly beautiful piece of land on Earth. Besides, California has more people than the 22 least populated states put together.
These 22 states have 44 Senators, 26 of whom are Republicans. That is 13 times more voting power than California’s 2 Democrats. And that is just plain wrong.
The 5 most populated states — CA, TX, FL, NY, & IL — have 38% of the country’s residents, 7 Democratic Senators, and 3 Republicans. This patterns repeats itself in the nation writ large. 52 GOP Senators represent just 44% of the nation’s total population.
I know what you’re saying. “So what? What’s the point of all this? It’s not like we can do anything about it.” My purpose is twofold. The first is simply to note that no injustice will change unless we first acknowledge that this injustice exists. I want to state my belief, for the record, that the composition of the United States Senate is fundamentally unjust, whether or not we can do anything about it at the moment.
My second purpose is to puncture the gloss of divine inspiration that we give to the current structure of the Federal Government. The system was the product of negotiation, compromise, and crude self-interested horsetrading. While it may have served us well for a while — which is debatable — it is certainly not serving us well now.
There is no question that the House and the Senate should, and do, play different roles. While the design of the Senate may cool the passions of the House and prevent it from making rash decisions, it can be dangerously reactionary as well. The so-called Southern Bloc of Senators set Civil Rights legislation back by several decades during the 20th century. If it wasn’t for the singular action of Lyndon Johnson betraying his Southern allies and pushing the Civil Rights Act to completion, we might have waited several decades more.
Given the horror-show that is the modern political climate, I would argue that the US Senate is still dangerously reactionary and unrepresentative of the people. To say nothing of the POTUS. It is certainly noteworthy that the only two political offices in the United States that are not bound by the principle of One Person, One Vote are the two most powerful offices in the land.
I am well aware of the retrograde composition of the House of Representatives, and of the ALEC-fueled sadism that guides so many state governments. But it is the disproportionately rural, conservative, fundamentalist-Christian influence over our Federal Government that is ultimately destroying this country from the top down.
What should the Senate look like, you ask? Good question. It should look like every state senate. The seats should obviously represent much larger groups of people than House seats; and the system of 6 year terms where a third of the seats are up for re-election every cycle is perfectly sound. In fact I’m not calling for a radical overhaul here; I just want to see the principle of One Person, One Vote applied to the two most important offices in the country. Which is hardly radical at all.
At good thought experiment to conduct from time to time is to ask yourself “If we were starting from scratch today, would we do it like this?”. In the case of the Senate and the Electoral College (thus the Presidency), the answer is a resounding “hell no”.