One person, one vote

"One man, one vote" (or "one person, one vote") is a slogan that has been used in many parts of the world where campaigns have arisen for universal suffrage. It became particularly prevalent in less developed countries, during the period of decolonisation and the struggles for national sovereignty from the late 1940s onwards. It was used in this form in an important legal authority in the United States, the Supreme Court majority opinion in Reynolds v. Sims, issued in 1964.

United Kingdom

This phrase was traditionally used in the context of demands for suffrage reform. Historically the emphasis within the House of Commons was on representing areas: counties, boroughs and, later on, universities. The entitlement to vote for the Members of Parliament representing the constituencies varied widely, with different qualifications such as owning property of a certain value, holding an apprenticeship, qualifying for paying the local-government rates, or holding a degree from the university in question. Those who qualified for the vote in more than one constituency were entitled to vote in each constituency, whilst many adults did not qualify for the vote at all. Plural voting was also present in local government, whereby the owners of business property qualified for votes in the relevant wards.

Over time reformers argued that Members of Parliament and other elected officials should represent citizens equally, and that each voter should only be entitled to exercise the vote once in an election. Successive Reform Acts both extended the franchise eventually to almost all adult citizens (barring convicts, lunatics and members of the House of Lords) and also reduced and finally eliminated most of the plural voting by 1950 for both Westminster and local-government elections. However there were two significant exceptions.

The City of London had never expanded its boundaries and with many residential dwellings being replaced by businesses and the impact of The Blitz there were barely five thousand residents in the entirety of the country's financial district after the Second World War. The system of plural voting was retained for electing the City of London Corporation with some modifications.

Northern Ireland

When Northern Ireland came into being, it adopted the same political system which was in place at that time for the Westminster Parliament and British local government. However, the Parliament of Northern Ireland did not follow Westminster in changes to the franchise, with the result that into the 1960s property plural voting still existed for both Parliament and local government. There has been much debate as to what extent the franchise for local government contributed to unionist electoral success in controlling councils in nationalist majority areas.[1] When the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association came into being in 1967, it had five primary demands. An additional demand which became just as important was that every citizen in Northern Ireland be afforded the same number of votes for elections. The slogan "one man, one vote" became a rallying cry for the campaign.

Along with four of the five primary demands, the voting system was updated by the Parliament of Northern Ireland and came into effect for the next election which, strikingly, took place after the suspension of the Northern Ireland government.

United States

Historical background

The United States Constitution requires a decennial census for the purpose of assuring a fair distribution of seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, and this has generally occurred without incident, with the exception of the 1920 Census. However, once the practice developed of electing said representatives from districts drawn from within the state, rather than electing them at-large, the question arose as to whether or not the state legislature (which had responsibility for drawing these congressional districts) was required to see that said districts were equal in population. Some states redrew their U.S. House districts every ten years; many did not. Some never redrew them, except when it was mandated by a change in the number of seats to which that state was entitled in the House of Representatives. This led to a disproportionality in the influence of voters across the states. For example, if the 2nd congressional district eventually had a population of 1.5 million, but the 3rd had only 500,000, then, in effect—since each district elected the same number of congresspeople—a voter in the 3rd district had three times the voting "power" of a 2nd-district voter.

Additionally, in most US states, electoral districts for seats in the upper house or Senate were ostensibly created at least partially on the basis of geography, rather than population. This principle was based on a principle found in the Constitution's plan for the United States Senate, in which each state was equally represented in the Senate with two representatives, without regard to population. (This was viewed with such importance by the Founding Fathers that a clause in the Constitution prohibits any state from being deprived of equal representation in the Senate without its permission, forbidding even the amendment of the Constitution to change this. For this reason, one man one vote can never be implemented in the U.S. Senate.) Often, the base unit for a state senate was a county, a standardized entity generally close to the same geographic area as every other county in the state. Whereas lower house seats might or might not be reapportioned on a decennial basis, such as those of the US House of Representatives, in most states, state senate district boundaries were never redrawn. As the United States became more urban, this led to the dilution of the votes of urban voters when casting ballots for state senate seats. A city dweller's vote had less influence on the make-up of the state senate than did a rural inhabitant's (although, if population-based representation was in place in the lower house, an urban resident still had the same amount of voting power in that realm). However, it also had the benefit of being immune from gerrymandering and the whims of population change, and it also prevented efforts at population engineering (that is, once a part of a state was populous enough to control the legislature, under one man one vote, it can implement policies driving people out of areas controlled by the opposition and cementing the localized majority further into power; since the senate's representation was immovable regardless of population, the affected parties would still have enough power in that chamber to stop any further damage).

Warren Court decisions

In various reapportionment cases decided by the Supreme Court in the 1960s, notably Wesberry v. Sanders, Reynolds v. Sims, and Baker v. Carr, the court ruled that districts for the United States House of Representatives and for the legislative districts of both houses of state legislatures had to contain roughly equal populations. The U.S. Senate was not affected by these rulings, as its makeup was explicitly established in the U.S. Constitution. The cases concerning malapportionment ended the pattern of area-based representation in the U.S. House and state legislatures. Eventually the rulings were extended over local (city) districts as well, as in Board of Estimate of City of New York v. Morris.[2]

Other uses

  • In Alaska, when instant runoff voting (IRV) was being proposed, League of Women Voters President Cheryl Jebe said, "It appears to compromise the well-established principle of one person, one vote, established by the United States Supreme Court."[3]

See also


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