Utah and the Irony of "One Person, One Vote"

United States Supreme Court
The United States Congress still abides only partially by the concept of "one person, one vote".  While the House of Representatives is apportioned according to population, every state, regardless of population, has two United States Senators.  It makes no sense to me, then, that the Supreme Court would have let this "disparity" stand while striking down similar disparities in several States in the 1960's.

Prior to the 1964 Supreme Court case Reynolds v Sims, the state of Utah, as well as many other states, had a bicameral legislature whose voting membership was apportioned very similarly to the United States Congress.

In order that smaller states had a more equal voice in Congress, the United States Constitution specified that
  • Every state would have at least one member of the House of Representatives
  • Every state would have exactly two senators

Utah's Constitution originally did something very similar. Each county in Utah was guaranteed one Senator and at least one Representative in the State legislature.

Many other states had similar constitutional provisions--until the United States Supreme Court intervened.
In Reynolds v. Sims (1964), the Supreme Court ruled that the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment requires that legislative districts across states be equal in population. The case began in 1962, when the Supreme Court ruled that it had authority to review cases brought by individuals harmed by legislative apportionment or redistricting.

Some states, such as Alabama, had clearly disenfranchised voters by not reapportioning representation since the year 1900, wherein 6 or 7 censuses had clearly indicated that population had shifted markedly toward the larger cities. Utah had experienced no such problems, however. Using this pretext, however, the Supreme Court decreed in 1964 that state representation had to comply with their recently invented "one person, one vote" doctrine.

Even more ironically, just the year before, in the Court's Gray v Sanders case, where "one person, one vote" was formulated, the Court declared that its new requirement did not apply to all the states, but only to Georgia, whose "County Unit System" dictated that state officers would be elected not by popular vote but by a winner-take-all tally system.

Nonetheless, Reynolds v Sims struck down that part of the Utah Constitution that structured representation in the Utah Legislature nearly identically to the way it is still done in the United States Congress.

That was--and still is--a travesty. In an effort to ensure more equal representation, the Constitution gives states with smaller populations an equal voice in the Senate. In a similarly healthy way, the Utah Constitution gave counties with smaller populations an equal voice in the Utah Senate.

By an 8-1 decision of an arbitrary Court in 1964, that fairness was struck down. Now, the laws for the entire state of Utah, including its far flung rural reaches, are largely determined by the people who live in Salt Lake City.

How fair is that? Not very.  How much sense did the Reynolds decision make with regard to Utah?  None.


  1. Why should the laws of the entire state, including Salt Lake City be disproportionately determined by the citizens of its far flung rural reaches? How is that right? Why should their vote be worth more than mine?

    James Madison's original draft of the Constitution had the membership of each house determined by proportional representation. He understood the conceptual importance of one person, one vote. Like the 3/5 clause, the final compromise was not one of principle, but one of political expediency, doing what is necessary to get the Constitution passed.

    Ironically, isn't the use of disproprtional representation ultimately a market distortion? Aren't you distorting the costs of living in certain areas and in doing so increasing the cost of living in a more populous area by deflating the value of their vote?

  2. Derek seems absolutely right. Is there a moral argument for granting greater proportional representation to rural voters over their urban counterparts just because they live in sparsely populated areas?

  3. If you want to see a really nasty example of rural areas being steamrolled by this decision, just look at our western neighbor. Two senate seats in Nevada out of a total of 21 cover 11 of the state's 17 counties, letting Las Vegas basically run ramshod over rural interests. (Why do you think that crazy water proposal even has any legs to begin with?) Reynolds replaced the problem of a state failing to follow its own laws on representation with the bigger one of letting urban areas dictate to rural ones.

    Derek: Why should Madison get any more say than the other parties involved in the discussion? The compromise reached by creating a bicameral legislative body was truly an inspired choice, especially given the role of the states at the time. It was important to give the people an equal voice with the states in the union since each had a stake in it. In addition, the appointment of senators provided a balance of popular sentiment versus the political elite. It may have been a compromise, but you seem to insinuate that this means it was highly flawed as a result. I think it's a good thing to have a body like the Senate act as a check on popular whims.

  4. Derek and Jeremy:

    I'm not sure how you're missing that a legislature set up in the way Congress is is NOT disproportionate representation. The House was, still is, and still would be apportioned according to population. Each county having its own voice in the Senate ensures a much smaller likelihood of mob rule.

  5. I'm against mob rule, but I don't see the value in giving rural districts a disproportionate say over public policy.

    Indeed, rural over-representation created by the single-member-district system has contributed to the rent-seeking success of agribusinesses.

    I think the factional checks and balances advocated in the Federalist Papers would be better achieved by electing members of the U.S. Congress by proportional representation.

    (And is it a double standard that the U.S. Senate is not proportionate, while the federal government requires state legislative districts to be proportionate? Yes, but the U.S. Constitution exempts the U.S. Senate from that standard (when you think about the pre-17th Amendment structure of the U.S. Senate, one can understand the exemption ... but we can thank that structure and the Electoral College for the corporate welfare given to ADM, Monsanto, etc. today).

    See also http://archive.fairvote.org/articles/progressivepopulis.htm

  6. Having lived in a rural area for much of my life, it is quite common for people in cities to vote on issues that they know little about that affect rural areas. One nasty piece of legislation shut down an entire forest in Northern Arizona for any logging whatsoever, even though logging companies were working closely with the forrest service to ensure sustainable practices. This lead to a huge economic downturn in my area as many people depended on the paper mill for jobs. People should have a say over what happens in their areas. The same concern was made when forming this country: that bigger states would run over smaller states. It happens. Democracy isn't the holy grail of politics. A large group of people can be just a tyrannical as a single despot.

  7. "I'm not sure how you're missing that a legislature set up in the way Congress is is NOT disproportionate representation."

    And how many conference reports have been passed by congress lately? For the most part the United States senate ignores what the house pass's and expects them to pass whatever it is they passed no matter how flawed or how many carvouts are in it to satisfy or otherwise buy the votes of the centrists or minority party. This is made worse by the senates filibuster rules, infact worse to the point of nearly making the senate a non functioning body. The senate has grow its power to a point that the US House of reps is ineffective in protected the majority from the tyranny of the minority.

    The Quality of legislation coming out of congress is very low, nobody wants that replicated on the State level.

  8. Frank, I'm not sure how you're missing that, in aggregate, the vote of people in populace areas would be diminished by the restoration you want. Our interests in one house would not be proportionally represented, and the interests of a minority would have greater sway.

  9. I'm not missing that. I understand that. Maybe what I'm missing is how that would be any different than what currently happens in the United States congress?

  10. Just because it happens at the federal level means it is politically just? I never claimed that. As I already implied, I agree with Madison's original plan.

  11. Obviously the Federal court has to follow the Constitution, warts and all. The Senate is undemocratic and does deny equal representation to most of the nation and therefore should be abolished, along with the Electoral College. There will always be minority interests and opinions on every issue, but they should not be permitted to outweigh the interests and opinions of the majority. If they are right and just, then the job of the minority is to convince a majority of their position, not to stymie the democratic process.

    The Senate was designed not to protect just any minority interest. It was there to protect the interests of those with lots of property, in particular human property, from having some of that property taxed to provide benefits for the majority or to have the majority's morality imposed on them.

  12. As a Utahn, however, I'm glad that as a small state we still have a chance to stand up to the likes of New York and California with our equal number of Senators. Without this, we'd likely never get our Federal lands back, for example.

  13. Frank, they're not any more "your" lands than my lands. You as Utahans have been entrusted with some of the most beautiful land in this nation and we in the large states just want to make sure you take good care of it. And yes as a small state with a small population, when you place 2 people in the US Senate you are denying equal representation under the law to the people of New York and California. We are all Americans and we all deserve equal voice in our government. Giving some people more voice because they happen to live in a less populous state is discrimination.

  14. We'll have to disagree on that one. We DO agree that Utah has some of the most beautiful land in the nation and that we should be good stewards of it. However, the Constitution makes it very clear that from a lawful perspective, nearly all land within a state does (or should...) belong to the state itself to administer, except for a very few, small exceptions.

    Utah and many western states have not had the benefit of what the Constitution clearly indicates. That is unfortunate. We're working to change that.

  15. I didn't see anywhere in the Constitution that mentions land. The state of Utah would not exist today if the federal government hadn't forcibly taken that land away from its original inhabitants. The only reason the state of Utah wants to control federal land within its borders is so that it can abrogate its stewardship of the land and use it for short-term economic gain, isn't that true?

    Regardless of your disapproval of federal land management, you in Utah do not have the right to disproportionately large voices in the Legislative Branch. The Senate is a counterproductive undemocratic relic of slavery and should be abolished forthwith.


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