Emerging from Philadelphia’s Independence Hall after the Constitutional Convention in mid-September 1787, Benjamin Franklin was questioned by a woman attempting to learn the final outcome of its lengthy secretive proceedings.
“Well, Doctor, what have we got — a Republic or a Monarchy?”
“A Republic,” came his reply. “If you can keep it.”
The Convention was highly contentious throughout, but there was broad consensus that not even the hint of direct democracy was to be its result. Most of the delegates harbored deep suspicions about a form of government they dismissed as “mob rule.”
Viewed through the funhouse mirror of 2016 presidential politics, that attitude seems especially perceptive more than two centuries later.
Or does it?
After clearing away the fog and (sometimes toxic) hot air generated by the candidates, the oxygen obviously fueling this presidential contest is the public’s generally held impression — on both the right and the left — that Washington is unresponsive to their needs and interests; that it is wholly undemocratic.
Is our problem today a national government that is so powerful and instantly reactive that it’s too efficient and thereby oppressively coercive?
Or is it one whose Constitutional structure so diffuses authority, frustrates responses and muddles electoral legitimacy that it’s too often hopelessly unproductive in the face of the 21st century challenges that demand its attention?
The Value of a Vote
Let’s start with something that should be straightforward, but isn’t — the vote.
“One person, one vote” is the oft-stated principle that is said to guide our republic, when in reality we’ve never been even close to meeting that ideal when it comes to the federal government.
Starting within the Constitution itself, the vote’s “worth” has always fluctuated. In 18th and 19th century America, voting was restricted mostly to white males who owned property. Even though it has since been rendered legally color-blind, extended to both genders and the property-owning requirement dropped, the vote still remains subject to inflation, dilution and distortion in myriad other ways.
Be reminded that the Constitution is actually a compact among states, not individual citizens. As such, for example, it gives Vermont and North Dakota, each with populations well under 1 million, equal representation in the U.S. Senate with New York and California, states that today are 20 and 30 times their size. Thus, the Constitution itself intentionally dilutes the votes of those residing in larger states while wildly inflating the value of those in the smaller ones.
Furthermore, it is weighted votes cast by states as a whole in the Electoral College that actually elect the president, not the individual votes cast by individual citizens. Once again, the power of the vote is intentionally diverted and dispersed.
All this, and numerous other compromises within the text of the Constitution, were engineered in service to the urgent mission of the day — building a new nation. In large part, they were concluded after hard negotiation to assure some that their interests wouldn’t or couldn’t be run over roughshod by others or by the new federal government.
Legacy in need of reform
With that early legacy of inequity — or artifice of equality, if you prefer — effectively baked into the system, subsequent gamesmanship over the vote could only be guaranteed. Across the board, many enduring undemocratic practices — gerrymandering, cloture and member holds within the Senate, changing voter qualifications — divert, distort or diminish the power of the individual vote and seek to tactically bend results toward one direction or another.
However, regardless of whatever justifications may be cited for the compromises of the past, it’s impossible to argue that the Constitution today ensures anything close to equitable representation for citizens across the board — that is, “one person, one vote”— at least when it comes to the federal government.
Ironically, though, that is not the case with the 50 state governments. Not since 1964 at least, when the Supreme Court in Reynolds v. Sims, interpreting the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution’s 14th Amendment, explicitly required that each resident be given equal weight in representation in both houses of the states’ legislatures — a strict “one person, one vote” standard.
The 14th Amendment was ratified in 1868, so it took nearly a century to get there. The U.S. Senate and the federal government, however, are anomalies and stick out like the proverbial sore thumb.
Since 1776, New York alone has held nine constitutional conventions and instituted at least four major reforms of its foundational document.
Many will chafe at the suggestion that the authors of the U.S. Constitution were anything but perfect; that their handiwork is anything but forever inspired and should remain untouched.
However, there seems little reason beyond sentimentality and false veneration not to reform a system, parts of which have demonstrably outlived their relevance.
Taking the initiative to update the Constitution and enrich it would actually honor the hard work done to create it; as opposed to just reverently leaving it to decay and allow the dysfunctions it now ignores gradually grind it into insignificance with every passing day.
“One person, one vote” would be a fitting place to start that initiative.
John Figliozzi of Halfmoon is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.