Stay up to date with notifications from The Independent

Notifications can be managed in browser preferences.

All voters are equal – but are some more equal than others?

The principle of ‘one person, one vote’ is sound, but in the US a single North Dakotan has 50 times as much clout as a Texan in senatorial elections

Richard Dawkins
Wednesday 22 February 2017 17:48 GMT
Citizens of some US states have much greater influence over the election of senators than their counterparts in others because of a curious electoral system
Citizens of some US states have much greater influence over the election of senators than their counterparts in others because of a curious electoral system (Rex)

Perhaps anticipating the possible election of a dangerous rogue president, the founding fathers of the United States put in place two vital curbs on presidential power: congress and the judiciary.

The tripartite check and balance system usually works quite well. Sometimes too well, as when a hostile Congress blocks every move of a particular president simply because they dislike him, without regard to his policies. But on the whole the three-way system works, and the Senate’s power of veto over presidential appointments to the Supreme Court is an especially important safeguard.

This vital constitutional role of the Senate shines an acute spotlight on the processes by which Senators are elected, especially since the justices don’t have to retire. “One person one vote” is a noble ideal, and it’s astonishing that it had to wait until the 1920s before it replaced “one man one vote”. The right to universal suffrage has not gone unquestioned. Winston Churchill said: “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” (Although he tempered this on another occasion with: “Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”)

Against Democracy, by Jason Brennan, quotes a finding that “40 per cent of Americans do not know whom the United States fought in the Second World War". Lest I be accused of national snobbery, we British have an equally lamentable grasp of reality. Imagine the votes that might be cast by the 19 per cent of us who think it takes one month for our planet to orbit the sun. Or the 27 per cent who think humans coexisted with dinosaurs. And, to return to the US, let’s not forget the 40 per cent who think the entire universe began after the domestication of the dog.

Am I being elitist? Of course I am.

You have a problem with that? Do I need to rehearse the point – it has been repeated almost to the point of cliché – that when you need an operation you choose without hesitation an elite surgeon? Or that when you board a plane you hope your pilot is a highly qualified expert?

Trump denies team had contact with Russia during election campaign

Perhaps the most despicable thing said in the recent Brexit campaign, even worse than the £350m lie, was the exhortation to mistrust experts. “You are the expert: the voter.” Well, I’m not. It’s a scandal that I was invited to vote. I don’t have a degree in economics, history or civics and, unless you do, you too are no expert on the advisability of leaving the European Union. So, yes, where really important and complex decisions are concerned, let’s hear it for elitism.

Proposals of a “driving test” for voters are greeted with howls of protest, although a serviceable precedent already exists in the “citizenship test” taken by immigrants to the US. Other unpopular suggestions have included the idea that holders of a college degree should have two votes. Monstrous! Are we not all created equal? Yes indeed.

Why, then, in senatorial elections, does a citizen of Wyoming have the equivalent of 66 votes, as against a Californian’s one vote?

That's how it works out if you calculate the relative weight of an individual’s vote in electing a senator. Why does an Oklahoman have 10 votes compared to a New Yorker’s two? Of course we know the historical justification for giving every state two senators regardless of population, and it deserves respect. Nevertheless, when you put it like this – when you reflect that a single North Dakotan has 50 times as much clout as a Texan in senatorial elections, and when you reflect on the huge influence of the Senate – doesn’t it give you pause? Such calculations can be done too, for the electoral college in presidential elections and they yield similar, if less dramatic, inequalities.

A decent objection to the “driving test” idea is that it discriminates against the poor and disadvantaged – a persuasive and perhaps fatal objection. But if discriminating on the basis of educational achievement or economic level is obnoxious, at least a case needs to be made for why discriminating on the basis of the state you happen to live in is less so. To say the least, the precedent is there, and it is embarrassing.

Two votes for a PhD seems downright modest compared with 66 votes just because you happen to live in a particular state. And the precedent for departing from the “one person, one vote” principle is not merely fulfilled but massively, manyfold – up to 66-fold – fulfilled.

As for the “driving test”, the objection that it discriminates against disadvantaged voters would not apply to candidates for election. If we demand a qualified surgeon or airline pilot, would it really be so terrible to discriminate against an ignorant amateur for president? If the citizenship test for immigrants were adopted as a minimal qualification, how confident are we that presidential and vice-presidential candidates themselves could pass?

We have it on the authority of his ghost writer that Donald Trump has never read a book in his adult life, and his disdain for constitutional legality is most charitably attributed to ignorance. As for Sarah Palin...

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in