Democracy: How do we achieve One Person, One Vote?

The  so-called Gang of Six -- three conservative Democrats and three conservative Republicans on the Senate finance committee -- have been struggling for months without much luck to devise a health insurance reform plan acceptable to them all. Together representing less than 3% of the U.S. population, they were selected by the White House to forge the chimerical "bipartisan" reform package that was somehow to gain legitimacy by encompassing the values of the party that lost the last congressional and presidential elections instead of merely reflecting the will of the majority. Why these six conservatives, an equal number of them Republicans despite the outcome of the last election, were picked instead of a full spectrum of democratically chosen representatives is one for the history books, but the result so far is that the Senate has had before it a series of proposals far less extensive than polls indicate is desired by voters.

The harebrained elevation of the Gang of Six to the status of super-senators reflects a bigger problem that confounds and constricts our democracy: the Senate itself is a surpassingly undemocratic institution. Born in 1787 of a necessary compromise between the larger and smaller states, the upper house was created to protect the less populous entities from being overwhelmed in the national legislature by those that had more people. At a time when no one thought of himself as an American, it made sense to protect the political sovereignty of the "state" that did hold a person's allegiance.

The nation and the concept of democracy under which it operates have evolved enormously since then; it is no longer tolerable, let alone necessary, to permit vast differences in the value of the individual franchise. The concept represented by the phrase "one person, one vote" is the accepted measure by which we judge democracy today. By that standard, no institution that allots equal power to .5 million citizens in Wyoming and 36.5 million citizens in California, to take one example, can by any reasonable measure be called democratic. The existence of the Gang of Six is emblematic of the sorts of mischief that follow from stunting democracy.

The most efficient way to deal with the Senate would be to get rid of it. Delegates to the Constitutional Convention originally envisioned a Congress consisting of a single chamber but ran into a wall over representation. Delegates from the larger, more populous states wanted the Virginia Plan, which called for the number of each state's representatives to be based on population. Delegates from smaller states liked the New Jersey plan, under which each state would select an equal number of delegates. Roger Sherman and Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut proposed a "bicameral" legislature as a compromise; the Congress would have two chambers, one representing the people, the other the states. Now that the impasse that engendered the Senate is long past, the simplest solution would be to revert to the unicameral model.

In a country as conservative as ours, though, it may not be possible make such a seemingly radical change. If we haven't even been able to eliminate a dysfunctional relic like the electoral college, how likely is it that we will throw out the Senate, no matter how profoundly it violates democratic ideals? We ought to do what we can, however, to make the body more democratic. The smallest step would be to remove one senator from the 16 least-populous states and grant an additional senator to the 16 with the most citizens. Under such a plan, California, Texas, New York, Florida, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Georgia, North Carolina, New Jersey, Virginia, Washington, Arizona, Massachusetts, and Indiana would have three senators each; Nevada, New Mexico, West Virginia, Nebraska, Idaho, Maine, New Hampshire, Hawaii, Rhode Island, Montana, Delaware, South Dakota, Alaska, North Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming would each have one. The other 18 states would continue to have two senators.

Depending how strongly we revere democracy, for most of us this plan wouldn't go nearly far enough, of course. While more fair and equitable than the current arrangement, it would still vastly tilt power toward the inhabitants of small and rural states. If this configuration were adopted, each of those folks in Wyoming would still be worth 32 Californians, although that's a considerable improvement over 72-1; it would take five California senators to Wyoming's one to cut the disproportion in representation to 14-1; and you would need 72 California senators to one from Wyoming to approach the ideal of One Person One Vote.

Simpler just to dump it.


Anonymous said...

This a stupid idea. No, wait. It's a surpassingly stupid idea. It will never happen in a million years.

Anonymous said...

University of Virginia professor Larry J. Sabato, in his book "A More Perfect Constitution," would erase the great compromise by giving the 10 most populous states two additional Senators, the 15 next most populous states one additional Senator, and the District of Columbia one Senator. He'd also have former Presidents and Vice-Presidents serve as Senators.

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