Representing Places as Well as People
In The Disenfranchisement of Rural America, James Huffman writes:
The county by county map of the 2012 presidential election clearly portrays the irony and unfairness of a nation of predominantly red communities governed by a blue, urban, national majority. President Obama won 52 percent of the states and 51.4 percent of the popular vote, but only 20 percent of the counties. Yet, everyone in every one of those counties is subject to the will of distant majorities lacking any understanding of or stake in the local communities they control. It wasn’t supposed to be that way, and should not be that way, in our extended national republic.
Democratic government at its best must be about more than the arithmetic of nose counting. Communities require representation if they are to survive in an ever more centralized world. Not the political interest groups we now call communities, but the real communities in which people raise their children, pursue their livelihoods, and nourish their friendships. These are the communities people call home, and they are slowly decaying with the loss of control over their own destinies.
As appealing and self-evident as it seemed at the time, one person/one vote was too simple to be right for a vast and diverse republic.
The much ballyhooed “Bloodless Revolution” in RI resulted in the seizing of political power from the towns to the urban core (as we now call it). It was an “end-justify-the-means” exercise if ever there was one. Yet, RI was in the vanguard of turning the “upper” house of the legislature–the State Senate–into nothing more than a differently-districted mimic of the lower House of Representatives. As Huffman explained, it was the Supreme Court that removed geography or “place” as a legitimate construction for governmental representation.
Prior to the 1964 United States Supreme Court decision in Reynolds v. Sims (here’s some background ~ MC), most state legislatures included one house apportioned on the basis of population and a second chamber apportioned on the basis of counties or other geographical regions. Many of the former had not been reapportioned for decades, leaving growing urban areas with less representation per capita than rural regions. On the basis of the principle of one person/one vote, the Court found that the failure of most states to regularly reapportion their lower houses put them in violation of the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment.
While one person/one vote was widely accepted as the appropriate standard for lower state legislative chambers, most states defended their geographically apportioned upper houses by drawing a parallel to the U.S. Congress in which the Senate is apportioned on the basis of states rather than population. The Supreme Court rejected their argument, concluding that counties and other local entities are merely subdivisions of unitary state governments lacking any claim comparable to state sovereignty. “Legislators,” said the Court, “represent people, not trees or acres. Legislators are elected by voters, not farms or cities or economic interests….” On the technical question of what constitutes a sovereign entity, the Court was right. But history has shown that the Court was wrong in its understanding of the function served by geographically apportioned state senates. While state senators elected from geographic regions rather than on the basis of population certainly did not represent trees or acres, they did represent communities.
Indeed, State Senates are, or were, intended to be structured like the U.S. Senate, where each region, i.e. state, has the same representation (two Senators) regardless of population. At the state level, it was usually counties (or cities and towns like in Rhode Island) that determined State Senate representation. If that hadn’t change, each state’s citizens would continue to have equal representation along populist lines in the House and each place–each city and town–would be equally represented in the Senate (for bi-cameral state legislatures, of course). In Rhode Island, each city and town would elect one State Senator so that Jamestown and Providence or Newport and Exeter or Central Falls and Block Island would have the same representation. However, the Bloodless Revolution of 1935 changed all that and, obviously, we aren’t going back. But Huffman explains that the unforeseen consequences (if not unwanted by the urban political machines) has been detrimental for rural communities:
Inexorably, the values and ambitions of urban America have been imposed on small town and rural communities. Despite the often broad agreement among their citizens, the rural communities of red county America have gradually lost control of their own destinies at the hands of statewide majorities marching to a different drummer….The point is not that the different drummer is blue and the rural communities are red. That is just the reality of 21st century American politics. The point is that, because of their minority status in statewide population terms and their lack of representation as communities, rural Americans are denied full self-governance.
The environment we live in imposes certain needs and priorities upon us. Country folk often have no idea the kind of issues that city dwellers have to deal with. And the reverse is also true. Money for a new irrigation project is much more important to a farmer than paying for street lights in the city. It’s no surprise that these acute concerns aren’t held in equal esteem by those with differing backgrounds and priorities. However, as Huffman argues, urban dwellers have the political power to prioritize their needs and desires far more than do their rural fellow citizens.
Maybe the other argument to be made is that the redundancy of State Senates should be dealt with by removing them and going to a unicameral legislature. That certainly wouldn’t help rural communities any more, but it might make government (or at least legislating) more efficient (if that’s a good thing?).