Sunday, April 10, 2016

The Trouble with the One Person One Vote Concept

In 1962 the Supreme Court took up a landmark case in Baker v. Carr. The Court decided that states had to determine district boundaries based solely on population to elect state senate and house representatives. The decision was based on an issue to overcome an imbalance of state representation between urban and rural areas. Some states did not adjust house representation as urban areas grew at a much faster pace than rural areas. In subsequent cases the rulings became known as “one person one vote”. On the surface, this ruling seems logical and makes sense. It made sure that everyone’s vote counted the same. The decision was justified through the due process clause of the fourteenth amendment. Today, this ruling is coming under a bit of scrutiny in a recent Supreme Court case: Evenwel v. Abbott. In this case, Texas is proposing setting district boundaries based on “one voter one vote” and not count persons who cannot vote (people under 18, felons, etc.) within districts. A decision will be rendered next summer.

There are however a few issues with the “one person one vote” concept. First, in the federal government, the constitution allows equal state representation in the Senate (each state gets 2 Senators) and the Electoral College is used for determining presidents. Neither of these concepts represents one person one vote. Thus, it seems hypocritical that the federal courts should dictate how states should decide its districting rules. Secondly, “one person one vote” is never going to be equal no matter how you decide to write district rules. People is just one variable, albeit a very important one. However, a majority of the representation coming from urban areas causes many problems for people living in rural areas. For instance, tax money is appropriated unequally among the populations with rural areas receiving much less monies per capita for infrastructure, schools, welfare, etc. And rural issues take a back seat to urban problems in the state capital.

Since I lived in both rural and urban areas I can see some of the differences first hand. A farmers vote counts for basically nothing in the “one person one vote” system. For instance, this is illustrated in CA where farmers’ livelihood is sacrificed at the expense of an endangered fish and they cannot get water to irrigate crops. My neighbors in Colorado are ranchers / farmers. The state is responsible for maintaining fences along state roads that boarder the farms. When the fence breaks and the cattle get on the roads and cause accidents, my neighbor still cannot fix the fence – he has to wait for the state to fix it (and that can take months). In fact, they can only move their cattle across roads to other fields one day out of the year. If the food dries up in one field, farmers got to move the food from other fields to feed the cattle even though it would be easier to move the cattle to the food. Ranchers and farmers are at the mercy of an urban run government, who incidentally uses eminent domain to take their property, to build roads. Also, roads are not as well maintained in rural areas, many are dirt and there is no snow removal unless there is at least 4 inches of snow. These are just a few examples that illustrate how urban dominated governments do not understand rural issues.

By 1964, the Reynolds v. Sims decision by the Supreme Court essentially made it unlawful for a state government to emulate the government structure of the United States. Under the ruling, both houses of a state legislature have to be determined by population and not by geographic areas. The decision obviously used Baker v. Carr as precedent but remember, the US Senate is determined by geographic regions – states – and not populous. If it is unconstitutional for states to emulate the structure of Congress in the federal government, then there is something wrong with these string of decisions. And because of this, rural areas suffer at the expense of urban areas in most states.

The Court was rash in its decision because they saw state legislature design as being another way to disenfranchise African-American voters in urban areas – especially in the South. Really, the Court had two possible ways to decide Baker v Carr: First, the Supreme Court had little jurisdiction in these cases and could have abstained from the case completely and secondly; they could have compromised by suggesting the house of the state legislature be decided by equally sized districts based on population, but suggesting the senate of the state legislature being designed as determined by the individual states. Instead, the court chose a third option that basically overruled the clever design of Congress in the federal government by our founding fathers that balanced urban and rural issues.

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