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The shortcomings of 'one man, one vote'

Posted: June 20, 2012 - 12:00am

“One man, one vote.” That’s the echo from a half century of voting equality that guided the state redistricting board’s efforts to reapportion the legislative districts across Alaska. But there’s one institution of American democracy where it doesn’t apply — the U.S. Senate. Yet if we know Alaskans will never surrender its two seats in the upper chamber of Congress, then how is it we tolerate the flaw in the population based apportionment of our state Senate?

The Alaska State Constitution provided for one senate district for every two house districts representing relatively equal populations. It’s basic math slightly complicated by the requirements for districts to be “formed of contiguous and compact territory containing as nearly as practicable a relatively integrated socio-economic area.” Additional consideration “may be given to local government boundaries” and the role of geographic features is only to describe boundaries whenever possible.

So from the time of statehood our Legislature has been comprised of two chambers with the membership of each serving as the voice for a similar number of citizens. Not all states’ legislatures were created this way. In fact, prior to a 1964 Supreme Court decision, some states had failed to guarantee equal representation in the U.S. House of Representatives even though the 14th Amendment to the Constitution clearly articulated that they “shall be apportioned among the several States according to their respective numbers.”

The principal of “one man, one vote” was etched into the spirit of the Constitution in another 1964 Supreme Court decision. The case of Reynolds v. Sims focused on disproportionate representation in the Alabama State Legislature. The legislative boundaries were such that state senators from urban areas represented as many as 40 times the number of citizens as senators in rural counties. It was even worse in three New England States where representation ratios exceeded 400 to one.

The Court found that “an individual’s right to vote for state legislators is unconstitutionally impaired when its weight is in a substantial fashion diluted when compared with votes of citizens living in other parts of the State.” Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote the majority opinion. “Legislators represent people, not trees or acres” he explained. It was a landmark decision that reversed the inequity created by a few decades of migration from rural America into the cities.

The court recognized that Alabama’s apportionment of one state senator for each of its 67 counties was “analogous to the allocation of two Senate seats, in the Federal Congress, to each of the 50 States, regardless of population.” But the ruling still applied to both legislative chambers in every state in the nation while leaving intact the disproportionate representation of the U.S. Senate.

To gain an appreciation for how much this benefits Alaskans in Congress, consider that the two U.S. Senators from California speak for 50 times as many people as Sens. Mark Begich and Lisa Murkowski represent. Or imagine how the “one man, one vote” dictum would impact us if it was applied to the one hundred member U.S. Senate. Alaska might find itself a small rural voice in a senate district where 80 percent of the people lived in Seattle and the northern Puget Sound region of Washington State. We’d no longer bring to Congress a voice that spoke for the distinct characteristics that make up the Great Land. Meanwhile, California representation would swell to 12 senators.

Such a scenario can be compared to the actual makeup of our state Senate. Forty percent of Alaska’s population is squeezed into the Municipality of Anchorage. They have eight seats in the senate. Southeast Alaska has two. But the remote nature of our region is as different from their mostly urban/suburban setting as Alaska is to California.

To call for restructuring our state Senate to set aside proportionality seems futile. But it doesn’t mean we can’t discuss the shortcomings of an urbanized judicial ruling that believes equality by numbers is all that’s needed to govern effectively. Democracy shouldn’t be reduced to simple arithmetic, for the fountain of wisdom doesn’t spring more powerfully in the cities and suburbs. It bubbles with unique vitality for people living among “trees and acres” that make up the rural geography of our Great Land.

• Moniak is a resident of Juneau.

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