Mises Wire

Why “One Man, One Vote” Doesn’t Work

 The US Senate is increasingly targeted by left-wing think tanks and legislators for the fact it is based on “voter inequality.” According to critics, the Senate ensures small states are “overrepresented,”and the body favors voters in smaller and more sparsely populated states. In contrast, reformers hold up the concept of “one man, one vote” as an ideal and a solution.

“One man, one vote” is not a clearly defined concept, but it is often used to oppose legislative schemes used in federal political systems.  Among these schemes is the US Senate in which each state is given an equal vote so as to balance out the interests of small states against the interests of large states. Large states, of course, dominate legislatures in population-based representation systems like that used in the US House of Representatives.

The US is not alone in using such measures. The Australian Senate, for example, allots twelve members to each state. The Senate of Canada is composed of appointed members who represent regions rather than individual provinces. Regional representation is not based on population size as in the House of Commons. In the Swiss Council of States, each canton is represented by two members, regardless of size.1

Non-population-based methods can be used in elections as well. The American electoral college system is one example. Another example is the Swiss method of “double majority,” in which some legislation requires approval by both the overall Swiss population (using a “one man, one vote” principle) and also by a majority vote in a majority of the cantons.

Naturally, systems like these give power to a relatively small number of voters from small cantons or states to exercise a veto in the election. For example, if a double majority system were employed in US presidential elections, a president could win an overwhelming majority in the popular vote, but be defeated by a coalition of small-state voters who are able to deny the needed majorities from twenty-six of the fifty states.

Those who support “one man, one vote” oppose this sort of thing because they think straight-up majorities should have the final say in every legislative matter.

Why Big and Powerful States and Regions Must Be Restrained

Switzerland, however, provides us insights into why simple majorities tend to be a problem. The Swiss confederation is a makeshift conglomeration of regions and cities with varying interests depending on the linguistic, religious, and cultural preferences of the population in each area. Some areas are Catholic and some are Protestant. Some  areas are French speaking, and other areas are German or Italian speaking.

These differences were even more significant in the past, so the confederation was designed with some anti-majoritarian measures to prevent any small number of highly populated regions from steamrolling over the rest of the country. If, say, the German-speaking cantons became very populous, then a system based on rank majority vote would mean that the German-speakers could ram their preferences down the throats of everyone else. The same might be said if one religious group gained a majority.

What the “one man, one vote” advocates would have us believe, however, is that there is no need to balance these interests. In their view, if there are more pro-French voters in Switzerland, than so be it: everyone must now do what the French-speaking majority says.

Applied to the US, we see this frequently pushed by progressives: the federalist measures designed to provide additional voting power to smaller states are denounced as “undemocratic” and we’re told that if Californians and New Yorkers have an overwhelming number of votes, then that’s just tough luck for everyone else. The minority must do what the majority says, even if those people have very different interests from the majorities in New York or California.

The way the Left shunts this argument aside is by insisting that there aren’t any real differences between people in, say, South Dakota, and people in New Jersey. If there are differences, it is because people are South Dakota are intellectual troglodytes and their opinions shouldn’t matter. This problem is solved by forcing “one man, one vote” on everyone so that South Dakotans’ unacceptable political views are neutralized by far larger majorities in faraway cities.

Historically, such claims would have been regarded as ridiculous. No one denied that there were significant cultural differences between the Pietists of New England and the Catholics and Lutherans of the Great Lakes region.  Even setting aside religious or ethnic differences, various regions of the nation had very different economic needs depending on what industries—agricultural, maritime, or manufacturing—were dominant in the region. It was recognized that agricultural areas ought to be able to offer legislative resistance to new laws designed to favor manufacturers at the expense of farmers.  In case an accident of history occurred by which one group became more populous than the other, many thought it would be prudent to put safeguards in place to prevent one region from dominating the other.

Cultural differences, of course, have been historically undeniable in Switzerland. Although there has been cultural convergence in recent decades, few would suggest that Italian-speaking Catholics in the south agree with northern German Protestants on all important matters. Differences are real, and a healthy respect for self-determination and human rights suggests that local cultures ought not be subject to the will of a distant majority.

Chinese Voters Would Out-Vote Everybody

This fundamental principle can be more easily illustrated in a hypothetical confederation with China as a member.

Suppose that in twenty years, some groups of elites in eastern Asia suggest it would be a great idea to form a confederation of states from the region: the United States of East Asia (USEA). It would include China, South Korea, Japan, Vietnam, and Indonesia. This new union could be put together to facilitate free trade, free migration, and to generally increase economic prosperity and peaceful multilateralism.

How should the governance of this organization be organized?

Using a unicameral legislature predicated on “one man, one vote” presents an obvious problem: the Chinese would obviously out-vote all the other countries on a regular basis. Even if South Korea, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Japan all voted together as a block, their relatively small population sizes could not possibly allow them to veto pro-China measures pushed by a majority of Chinese voters. Because of China’s size, any other members of the confederation would quickly realize that the USEA was really just a union dominated by China most of the time.

On the other hand, a remedy could lie in creating requirements for double majorities or in assigning equal representation to all members in a senate. This would moderate China’s power. If these steps were taken, though, the “one man, one vote party” advocates would object and insist that China’s dominance is perfectly fine because all the voters deserve equal representation and it would be “unfair” to give Japanese voters the same number of votes in the USEA senate as China. Chinese voters would be disenfranchised!

Moreover, the “one man, one vote” advocates—were they to use the same arguments used in the US—would claim that if the people of Japan and Indonesia are unwilling to live by “the will of the majority” among “all voters” in the USEA, it just illustrates how backward and undemocratic those Japanese and Indonesians are. “Democracy,” we’d be told, demands that every voter, whether Chinese, Japanese, or Vietnamese must count equally.

Clearly, such a situation would quickly lead to the dissolution of the USEA, whether peacefully or through violence.

Yes, it’s true that the cultural differences between people in New York and people in Utah are not as stark as the differences between the Chinese and the Japanese. But the fundamental principles behind the need for federalism in the USEA and in the USA are the same.

  • 1Into the mid-twentieth century, individual US states often employed non-population-based apportionment in their own senates. In some cases, each county was represented by one or two senators, regardless of the county’s size. Eventually in the federal courts, the “one man, one vote” principle was instrumental in ending this system. These rulings essentially turned state senates into just smaller versions of each state’s house of representatives
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