What is Democracy? (37): One Man, One Vote

Or better, one person, one vote. It’s not until relatively recently that women and minorities have been given the vote, even in the most advanced democracies in the world.

In most modern democracies, most adults have a vote. Few large groups (felons, children and immigrants excepted) are excluded from voting, and no one has more votes than anyone else. (In the early days of many democracies, some people had a larger number of votes; this was called plural voting).

However, it’s not because all people have one vote, that all votes have the same weight and that all people have an equal weight in the aggregate outcome of the vote. They only have in democracies that use proportional representation. PR results in a political spectrum in parliament that roughly coincides with the spectrum of the voters. No part of the electorate is over- or under-represented.

Democracies which do not use PR often use district systems (e.g. the U.S. and the U.K.). This is also called the “first-past-the-post” system – whoever has most votes in a district (not necessarily the majority of votes) gets the seat in parliament reserved for this district and becomes the only representative for the district (“winner takes all”). In some cases, this electoral system gives power to a relative majority and therefore, not necessarily an absolute majority. A party that has a few more votes than all other parties in a majority of districts, will have a majority of seats in parliament, but perhaps a minority of the votes. As this example indicates, a district system can result in the rule of a minority. An important minority or maybe, even a majority may not be represented at all. Political equality and majority rule, the basic values of a democracy, are affected. There is no longer a perfect match between the views of the people and the views present in parliament.

In such a system, the one-man-one-vote principle can be further harmed If the districts are not equal in proportion in terms of population. If both a small group of people and a large group of people have one representative, then we can hardly claim to have political equality, regardless of the possible problems created by the winner-takes-all rule. In some countries, rich minorities have often been given small districts, which favored them politically and offered them a very large and disproportional share of the seats in parliament. This is called gerrymandering.

For these and other reasons, the type of democracy instituted in the U.S. deviates, in part, from the principle of one-man-one-vote (a reason for some to call it a republic rather than a democracy, although the difference between these two concepts is spurious, see here). Whereas each member of the House of Representatives represents more or less the same number of voters (even though the system is based on voting districts), the Senate seats are not allocated according to population. Each state, large and small, gets two seats. Wyoming, with barely half a million citizens, has exactly the same political influence in the Senate as California (37m citizens). If you view U.S. states as large districts, you could say that the U.S. Senate has institutionalized the bias that gerrymandering can create in district systems.

This wouldn’t be so bad if the U.S. Senate, the Second Chamber in the U.S. parliament, didn’t have so much political power. Its powers, defined in the Constitution, include

  • consenting to treaties as a precondition to their ratification
  • approval of both chambers is necessary for the passage of legislation.

Even a minority of Senators can block legislation. The filibuster is a tactic used to defeat bills and motions by prolonging debate indefinitely. As it takes 60 votes out of a total of 100 Senators to stop a filibuster, a minority can block everything if it wants. So again, a further restriction of the democratic principle of one-man-one-vote. The Economist has calculated that if the least populous states ganged together, senators representing 11% of the population could thwart the will of the remaining 89%. Speaking of tyranny of the majority … The filibuster has often been used for very conservative and ill-intended purposes such as the preservation of Jim Crow laws and wasteful farm subsidies.

It can of course be used for more positive purposes as well. It can slow down over-anxious House representatives and hence improve the quality of legislation. The division of the legislative power into two parts, an Upper House and a Lower House or a House of Representatives and a Senate, is typical of a democracy and makes it possible to correct mistakes made in one House. One House can slow down or stop another House when some decisions are too risky or are taken without the necessary reflection or discussions. This system

doubles the security to the people by requiring the concurrence of two distinct bodies in schemes of usurpation or perfidy, where the ambition or corruption of one would otherwise be sufficient. James Madison in the Federalist Papers.

If we expect two houses or chambers to control and correct each other, then the participants of both must be selected in different ways. But it seems that this can still be done with a higher degree of respect for the principle of one-man-one-vote.

The reasoning behind this deviation from the one-man-one-vote system in the U.S. was to ensure equal representation of each state in the Senate, so that populous states can’t take measures that harm the fundamental interests of small states and therefore can’t violate the federalist philosophy of the U.S. It was supposed to be a counterweight against the “people’s house” (the House of Representatives) that would be sensitive to public opinion. Trust in public opinion has never been very high (which I argue is a self-fulfilling prophecy). But rather than protect the U.S. from the tyranny of public opinion, one has delivered it to the tyranny of the minority. Hardly democratic at all.


8 thoughts on “What is Democracy? (37): One Man, One Vote

  1. I think it is not necessarily so that a PR system (which one? there are many) gives each vote equal weight. Mapping a large electorate onto a much smaller set of representatives inevitably gives rise to discrete steps, and the few votes either side of such a step determine whether or not someone is elected or not.

    The district system has disadvantages, but (as I explained in http://goo.gl/GBfcaY) so have other systems. Imagine that the European Parliament elections would not recognize national boundaries, and operate on a pan-European list system. It would then be quite possible that nobody representing Luxembourg, Malta or any of the other small states would be elected. Their votes would help to elect members of whatever list they voted for, but from other countries.

    I don’t think PR systems are necessarily superior to or more democratic than other voting systems. That doesn’t mean that non-proportional systems are inherently democratic, let alone more democratic (insofar as there is a scale). But there are other dimensions to it. So, for example FPTP’s democratic value lies in the guarantee that the candidate with the strongest support in any district is elected.

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