“One Person, One Vote”: Is there any more concise expression of American sentiments about democracy? We know that people are sometimes intimidated into not voting or stripped of the right to cast a ballot; that not every ballot always gets counted; and that money plays an outsize role in shaping the roster of candidates. But surely, we tell ourselves, when the votes do manage to get tallied, no single vote counts more than any other. Who could argue with a straight face that it could ever be otherwise?
In truth, though, “one person, one vote” has been more principle than reality for much of US history. To this day, it doesn’t really apply at the federal level. Hawaii has 1.4 million residents; California has 38 million. And yet both states have two US senators. While each Californian’s vote counts equally when it comes to selecting California’s senators, those votes influence the composition of the nation’s Senate almost thirty times less than votes cast in Hawaii. This inequity is a product of the grand constitutional compromise through which individual states ceded their sovereignty to the union. Each state’s number of seats in the House of Representatives is determined by its population; but in the Senate, all states are equal. Right or wrong, that’s the setup.
Until relatively recently, however, deviations from the ideal of equal representation were in practice far beyond the US Senate. Prior to 1964, most states based representation in at least one house of their legislature on factors other than population. This meant the weight of individual votes varied from district to district. In 1962, writes the historian J. Douglas Smith in On Democracy’s Doorstep: The Inside Story of How the Supreme Court Brought “One Person, One Vote” to the United States (Farrar, Straus and Giroux; $35), “only five states—Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Oregon, West Virginia, and Wisconsin—apportioned districts so that majorities in both chambers of the legislature represented at least 40 percent of the population.” Throughout the twentieth century, the population of urban districts swelled, but their legislative representation never increased accordingly. In much of the nation, a rural vote was worth more than an urban one—which suited business leaders and white supremacists just fine.
After World War II, as reapportionment movements sprang up, businesses and politicians who benefited from the status quo hired lobbyists to defend it. It was a matter, they said, of “balance” and “minority rights.” What they failed to recognize or admit, according to Smith, was that states had a sovereign existence prior to their union as a nation; districts, by comparison, were “mere administrative creations of the states.” This may be true—but it’s also a hard sell to, say, any high-schooler with a basic sense of fairness. Why would a system that was manifestly unjust at the state level be unobjectionable at the federal one? And why should a compromise from 225 years ago change the answer?