One person, one vote?
Last week in Vermont and this week in New Hampshire we got to witness democracy in its truest form -- Town Meeting. It’s the one day of the year when citizen gather to approve or reject tax and spending initiatives and elect their local leaders, and where every vote counts.
Indeed, town meetings and local elections can be, and at times have been decided by a single vote. That makes it all the more disheartening to see voter turnout rates of only 15-20 percent year after year. We understand that not everybody can take the time to attend the town meeting, but when you’re able to procure and send in a ballot in advance, there’s really no excuse.
It baffles us because here at the local level, the issues and candidates being voted upon have a more direct effect on our daily lives than national elections, which typically see much higher voter turnouts -- from 50 to 70 percent this past November, including 60 percent in Vermont.
Perhaps it’s because national elections get more media coverage, and considerably more campaign money, in the months leading up to them. Or maybe people think national elections are more important because, well, they’re national, and that alone makes their vote more important.
The irony is that the individual vote actually counts less on the national stage, and is thus less important than on the local level. What’s even more ironic is
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Senate and the Electoral College, as the New York Times pointed out in a recent article, "Smaller states find outsize clout growing in the Senate."
The framers of the Constitution set up the Senate to provide for equal representation of the states, regardless of population. That means that states with fewer voters have just has much power as those with the highest number of voters. It also means that smaller states get more federal money per person than larger states.
The Times article points to Vermont, specifically Rutland County, as a prime example of this disparity. In the four years after the financial crisis struck, a great wave of federal stimulus money washed over Rutland County. It helped pay for bridges, roads, preschool programs, a community health center, buses and fire trucks, water mains and tanks, even a project to make sure fish could still swim down the river while a bridge was being rebuilt.
Just down Route 4, at the New York border, the landscape abruptly turns from spiffy to scruffy. Washington County, N.Y., which is home to about 60,000 people -- just as Rutland is -- saw only a quarter as much money. In Rutland, the federal government has spent $2,500 per person since early 2009, compared with $600 per person across the state border in Washington County, according to the Times. The article points out that Vermont’s 625,000 residents have two United States senators, and so do New York’s 19 million. That means that a Vermonter has 30 times the voting power in the Senate of a New Yorker just over the state line -- the biggest inequality between two adjacent states.
The advantage small states enjoy in the Senate is echoed in the Electoral College, where each state is allocated votes not only for its House members (reflecting the state’s population) but also for its senators (a two-vote bonus). In 2000, had electoral votes been allocated by population, without the two-vote bonuses, Al Gore would have prevailed over George W. Bush.
Political scientists say the power of the smaller states is large and growing, and they call it a striking exception to the democratic principle of "one person, one vote." Indeed, they say, the Senate may be the least democratic legislative chamber in any developed nation, according to the Times.
In response, lawmakers, lawyers and watchdog groups have begun pushing for change. A lawsuit to curb the small-state advantage in the Senate’s rules is moving through the courts. The Senate has already made modest changes to rules concerning the filibuster, which has particularly benefited senators from small states. And eight states and the District of Columbia have endorsed a proposal to reduce the chances that the small-state advantage in the Electoral College will allow a loser of the popular vote to win the presidency.
However, the basic disparity between large and small states is wired into the constitutional framework. Some scholars say that this is as it should be and that the advantages enjoyed by small states are necessary to prevent them from becoming a voiceless minority.
"Without it, wealth and power would tend to flow to the prosperous coasts and cities and away from less-populated rural areas," Stephen Macedo, a political scientist at Princeton, told the Times.
Gary L. Gregg II, a political scientist at the University of Louisville, similarly argued that urban areas already have enough power, as the home of most major government agencies, news media organizations, companies and universities. "A simple, direct democracy will centralize all power in urban areas to the detriment of the rest of the nation," he said.
Others say the country needs to make changes to preserve its democratic vitality. They have called for an overhaul of the Constitution. This could be both good and bad for Vermont. On the one hand, the current system gives Vermont more power and a greater voice on the national stage. However, most of the other small states welding disproportional power have a more conservative political bent, making the liberal policies Vermonters tend to support more difficult to pass.
Either way, it may be a moot point because our forefathers went out of their way to require states to agree before their power is diminished. Article V of the Constitution sets out the procedure for amendments and requires a two-thirds vote of both houses of Congress or action by two-thirds of state legislatures to get things started. But the article makes an exception for the Senate.
"No state, without its consent, shall be deprived of its equal suffrage in the Senate," the article concludes.
It’s unlikely that Vermont or any other small state will give its consent on any constitutional amendment that reduces its power or authority in the Senate.