I’ve been watching some Bernie Sanders rallies on YouTube, starting with the big rally in Queens with AOC. One important proposal that he brings up several times is “one person, one vote”. His website doesn’t seem to have a proposal for how to get there though. Here’s a look at how far we are from that goal, and an idea about how we might go about it.
Taxation without Equal Representation
Remember in middle and high school we’re were all expected to marvel at the great genius of the founding fathers, who created three branches of government, with checks and balances, to make sure no part of the government could dominate, and thus ensure liberty and freedom for all? It’s a great little snippet, a little meme our culture likes to remind us about. We hear it over and over again on TV and radio, it’s one of just a handful of things pretty much every American knows, and expects most other Americans to know. It’s one of our few pieces of nearly universal mutual knowledge. Most of us even agree – checks and balances are great!
Here’s a question no one asks.
How many of those branches do you get to vote for?
You don’t get to vote for the president. That’s the electoral college, as we’ve been reminded multiple times – twice in the past 20 years.
You don’t get to vote for the Supreme Court or the rest of the federal judiciary – they’re appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate.
You don’t really get to vote for your House Rep – House districts are gerrymandered to the hilt; political parties are picking their voters, instead of voters choosing their representatives. This isn’t new. The term was coined in 1812, but gerrymandering was written into the Constitution in 1787. It’s been used to rig the vote from our very first elections. It just didn’t get a memorable name until a particularly flagrant example looked like a dragon, and a local newspaper coined a term that went viral.
So, three branches of government, checks and balances, and you get to vote for one-half of one-third of those three branches. A whole sixteen percent. The US Senate – and that only since 1913, when the 17th Amendment was ratified.
But you don’t get an equal vote for the Senate. I live in Michigan. There are just under 10 million of us Michiganders. There are just under 600,000 people in Wyoming. Both populations get the same representation in the Senate – two Senators. If the people of Michigan had equal representation in the Senate with residents of Wyoming, Michigan would elect thirty-four Senators.
California would elect one-hundred thirty-six.
Here’s the math for all 50 states. How many Senators would your state elect, if we all had an equal vote? How many House Reps and members of the Electoral College?
I and all my friends in Michigan get taxed by the federal government at the same rates as the good folks in Wyoming — but each of us get just 5.9% of their representation in the Senate. Our friends in California get less than 1.5%. The rallying cry of the revolution we’re taught to revere was “no taxation without representation!” What did the genius of the founding fathers give us?
Taxation without equal representation.
From a one-person-one-vote standard, Michigan is down 3 House Reps, 32 Senators, and 35 seats in the electoral college. Across the country, from a one person, one vote standard, we’re missing:
106 House Reps
1088 Electoral College seats.
A vote for Senate in Wyoming is 16 times more powerful than a vote for senate in Michigan, and 66 times more powerful than a vote for Senate in California. Similarly for other states, according to their population.
Seventeen percent of the US population elects 52 Senators, a majority in the Senate. That’s looking at the 26 lowest population states, and taking their total population.
Their total population doesn’t vote. If we look at the voting eligible population of those 26 states, in the two highest turnout elections of the past 20 years, 11.2% of the voting eligible population was enough to elect 52 Senators in 2008, 8.2% in 2018. Here’s the math. Not everyone who is eligible votes, either because they’ve decided it’s futile, or because they made a run at fighting through all the barriers between them and their vote, and they didn’t make it. If we look at the percent of the total population that elects a majority of the Senate, the numbers are 7.8% in 2008 and 5.9% in 2018.
Just 3.7% of the national population elects 42 Senators, enough to sustain a filibuster. In 2008 just 20% of the population was enough to elect a supermajority – 67 Senators. Enough to impeach, or pass an amendment to the Constitution. In 2018, just 15.4% was enough for that 67 seat supermajority. Does that sound like democracy of the people, by the people, for the people to you?
It’s certainly not one person, one vote. If we had one person, one vote, one consequence would be that you’d need half the voters in the country to elect half the Senate. The key concept behind one person, one vote is that every voter has equal power in every election. Right now, 7.8% of the people elect more than half the Senate. That’s not equal power, that’s a lot more power to the 7.8% than to the other 92.2% of the people. That’s the power to decide policy, in the hands of 52 people who represent just 7.8% of the population.
It’s actually worse than that. Only about half the people who voted actually elected those Senators, the other half voted for someone else. About 5.6% of the population elects a supermajority of Senators – enough to impeach, or pass an amendment to the Constitution. Just 3.9% of the population elects 52% of the Senate, and just 1.9% elects enough Senators to sustain a filibuster – enough to stop most bills from passing.
One Person, One Vote
To get to one person, one vote under the present system is difficult. You’d have to abolish the Senate and the Electoral College as we know them, and significantly reform the way we go about electing House Reps, just for starters. Here’s one idea that avoids all of that. Add the following to the Constitution:
Each member of the House, the Senate, the Electoral College, or other assemblies subject to this Constitution, shall have a number of votes in the assembly equal to the number of votes they received in the immediately preceding election.
There are several advantages to this system. First, in effect, each person – every voting member of the population – gets one vote in each assembly they’re subject to. By voting for a particular candidate, the voter effectively transfers their vote in the assembly to their favored candidate.
Second, dissent has real power. The fewer people who vote for a candidate, the fewer votes they’ll have as a member of the assembly. Parties, elected officeholders, and candidates have an incentive to get more people to vote, because the more people who vote (for them) the more voting power they’ll have in the assembly. Voting for the losing candidate, or not voting at all, has real power.
However, while that “negative” power can help prevent bills from getting passed, by reducing the vote total for bills the winning candidate supports, it doesn’t have the same impact as a positive vote FOR the candidate. It’s as if the winning candidate’s supporters get a full vote, and the losing candidate’s supporters get something like half a vote. Much better than the 5.9% of a vote Michiganders have in the Senate compared to our friends in Wyoming, but not yet one person, one vote.
The simplest way to fix this is to add the following to the Constitution:
Each member of the House, the Senate, the Electoral College, or other assemblies subject to this Constitution, shall have a number of votes in the assembly equal to the number of votes they received in the immediately preceding election. In elections for such assemblies, all candidates receiving 5% or more of the total votes cast shall be elected.
The 5% is a bit arbitrary. Maybe it should be 20%, or 1%. Maybe it should be the two candidates with the most votes. Maybe it should be something else. The point is, now we’re getting very close to one person, one vote. Supporters of candidates with less than 5% of the vote, and people who didn’t vote, still deny the elected officeholders their votes, reducing their power. Their votes have real power, even if only in the negative sense. Everybody else has exactly one person, one vote in each assembly.
Right now, we’re in the midst of a Constitutional crisis. The way we’ve done things in the past is not how we’ll continue doing things into the future. We may slide farther towards authoritarianism, or we may grow a more democratic union. The fabric of our nation is in flux.
We’ve never been a democracy (or a republic, or a democratic republic). If we want to build a democracy, we’re going to have to fight for it, and now is the time to do it. In the broad political arena, in the electoral arena, and in the legal and Constitutional arena. We’ll have to think outside the box of our received ideas about how our government functions and how it might function better. The closer we can come to one person, one vote, the better off we’ll all be.