One Person, One Vote, considered

There is a somewhat famous Thomas Jefferson quote from a letter to his nephew, “question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blind-folded fear.” It shouldn’t require more than a moment to begin to realize that our society does not tolerate questioning many of our values.

Here, we will discuss one such value: that there should be one person, one vote. Why should there be? We will run through the debate quickly before we really dig in with what’s good.

How we find the debate

The idea of one person, one vote should be identified as the defining principle of democracy—or at least literal democracy. In a democracy, decisions are made based on majority rule, and majority rule can only be reliably executed by the principle of one person, one vote.

As it happens, one person, one vote is a view that is often attributed to the Founders. But their project, particularly in drafting the Constitution, has to be said to have been an attempt to create a popular government that wasn’t ruled by a majority. They only left one half of one branch of government—the House of Representatives—to one person, one vote, and even though that is true to say, there are issues such as the three-fifths compromise that should be discussed, although this writing is not the appropriate place. Aside from the House of Representatives, the Founders purposely created a conflicting system of government in order to make the use of power difficult, including for the majority.

Apparently, the phrase one person, one vote comes from Supreme Court decisions in the 1960s. In the Court’s use, including the recent Evenwel v Abbott (2016), the phrase seems to only refer to what is proper, the drawing of districts, which affects the House of Representatives among other things. If it were understood to be a generally applicable Constitutional doctrine, then it would have to apply to the Senate, in which each state regardless of population gets two votes, and the electoral college, which provides a minimum number of votes to states and grants outsized influence to less populated states in Presidential elections. It should also be noted that the Supreme Court and the bureaucracy are quite insulated from direct electoral concerns.

Popularly, however, the idea of one person, one vote is considered to be a broadly applicable principle of justice. It should be identified with the impulse that led to the 17th Amendment and the direct election of the Senate in the beginning of the 20th century. A notable current example is Bernie Sanders, who frequently claims that there should be one person, one vote. For instance, he said March 22, 2016 in San Diego that “democracy is not a complicated process, it really isn’t. It means that you have one vote, you have one vote, you have one vote.” On this basis, the Democrat party gets quite a lot of mileage alleging that Republican efforts to implement voter ID requirements are motivated by racism.

This brings us to an interesting point in the popular debate. Because of the unique history of America, any alternative to one person, one vote is taken for granted to resemble the notably egregious deviations in the country’s history. Among these are what are known as literacy tests, tests that were given to black people before they would be allowed to vote. However, these were really literacy tests in name only, and were actually literal efforts to prevent black people from voting with unreasonable questions such as “how many bubbles are in a bar of soap?

But, it should be acknowledged that this circumstance, this horizon that we find ourselves in, is essentially a condition of intellectual poverty. Whether or not a society should generally be organized on the basis of one person, one vote is actually an issue that any society has to deal with, no matter how homogeneous or heterogeneous its population. It has to be considered generally. It doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with race.

Plato’s Socrates and Protagoras

As it happens, there is a work that has come down to us that considers this generally and which I believe is very edifying. In Plato’s Protagoras, he has Socrates ask the famous Sophist why it is that, in our terms, people think that there should be one person, one vote, or more precisely, why everyone’s opinion about how society should be run should be considered. He has Protagoras answer in the form of a creation myth.1

Protagoras says that there was a time when there were gods but no mortal creatures. Eventually, the gods decided to create the creatures and left it to Prometheus and Epimetheus to equip them with “suitable powers”. Epimetheus convinced Prometheus to let him do it himself, and proceeded to give “some creatures strength without speed, and equipped the weaker kinds with speed. Some he armed with weapons, while to the unarmed he gave some other faculty and so contrived means for their preservation. To those that he endowed with smallness, he granted winged flight or a dwelling underground; to those which he increased in stature, their size itself was a protection. Thus he made his whole distribution on the principle of compensation, being careful by these devices that no species should be destroyed.”

Eventually, Prometheus came to check on Epimetheus’ work and noticed that Epimetheus had used up all the available powers and left mankind unprovided for. To solve this problem, Prometheus stole from Hephaestus and Athena the gift of skill in the art, including the use of fire which makes the skill possible. Thus man was able to keep itself alive, but they had no political wisdom, which was kept by Zeus. In this condition, they lived in “scattered groups” without cities, and were devoured by beasts since they didn’t have the art of war, which is part of politics. They attempted to form cities for their defense, but merely injured each other and scattered again because of their lack of political skill.

To save humanity, Zeus sent Hermes to impart political wisdom to humanity. Hermes asked Zeus about his task, “Shall I distribute [political wisdom] as the arts were distributed—that is, on the principle that one trained doctor suffices for many layman, and so with the other experts? Shall I distribute justice and respect for their fellows in this way, or to all alike?” “To all” said Zeus. “Let all have their share. There could never be cities if only a few shared in these virtues, as in the arts.”

Protagoras concludes, “Thus it is, Socrates, and from this cause, that in a debate involving skill in building, or in any other craft, the Athenians, like other men, believe that few are capable of giving advice, and if someone outside those few volunteers to advise them, then as you say, they do not tolerate it—rightly so, in my submission. But when the subject of their counsel involves political wisdom, which must always follow the path of justice and moderation, they listen to every man’s opinion, for they think that everyone must share in this kind of virtue; otherwise the state could not exist. That, Socrates, is the reason for this.”

The implications of Plato’s account can easily be put into modern terms: there is nothing in science to suggest that there should be one person, one vote. People believe in one person, one vote because of faith, because of some irrational belief that they take for granted about the origin of mankind. But this doesn’t quite capture all of Plato’s message. Plato would probably put it that genuine knowledge does not suggest to us that there should be one person, one vote. Put this way, it more readily suggests the question, “does, then, genuine knowledge suggest a way to organize political society?”

As I argued in the debut writing for this website and more recently, the question of whether or not it is right for parents to rule their children has serious implications for how political society should be organized. After all, people that think there should be one person, one vote have a limit to how young they think that should apply. But, if there were any group other than the sufficiently young that weren’t allowed to vote, such as women or blacks, it would be properly said that that group was ruled by the rest of society. And so there is agreement that children should be ruled by their parents. But, the typical standard that societies have that children become adults for legal purposes when they reach a certain age has to be understood as a mere convenience that is resorted to because of society’s inherent inability to judge the child’s maturity on a case-by-case basis—it is a general rule that is imperfectly applied since there is no alternative. Merely from these considerations, it has to be concluded at least that people most fitted to be adults—i.e. to rule themselves2—should rule society.


We should note that these conclusions are not incompatible with the idea of one person, one vote in all situations. As Aristotle said3, “justice seems to be equality, and it is, but not for everyone, only for equals. Justice also seems to be inequality, since indeed it is, but not for everyone, only for unequals.” Therefore, in a society in which everyone is similarly capable of self-rule, there should be one person, one vote. This is what was meant by comments like Montesquieu’s4 that “in a popular state there must be an additional spring, which is virtue.”

Of course, it is very doubtful that our society is such a virtuous society. But, I will not wimp out and avoid offering an alternative to one person, one vote: people who are more qualified to rule vote more often, and so people who vote more often should have their votes count more. I’m not committed to any particular ratio other than that it should be sufficient. Frankly, the idea of majority rule should be said to be an effort to get the least qualified people to rule, and certainly in our society, it should be said that the least qualified people to rule vote the least often. As Bernie Sanders said, “poor people don’t vote”. What else needs to be said of someone that maintains with a straight face that a person that chooses not to get a photo ID should nonetheless be allowed to vote than that they are advocating for the least qualified people to rule society?

This proposal has the distinct benefit of not denying anyone the ability to vote such as a civics test would. There would thus be even less basis for the literacy test comparison. The literacy tests that were used to deny black people the ability to vote can be wrong even if there isn’t a legitimate philosophical basis for one person, one vote. Of course, it has the potential danger of incentivizing the least qualified to vote more often—but I think that is unlikely to be a widespread outcome and given the various elections it seems possible that such behavior would have the effect of causing a voter to take their responsibility more seriously. I believe this could all be done without a Constitutional amendment.

It will be noted that this proposal has an obvious partisan slant, since voters in low-turnout elections are more conservative (consider the relative Republican party dominance in midterm elections). Well, while I consider myself a relatively sober thinker, I do have a partisan slant. I do believe that a more qualified voter is more likely to vote for R’s since among other reasons the D’s essentially rely on the least qualified voters (i.e. poor people) for political victory (consider that the D’s won 60% of voters that make under $50k—a plurality of all voters—in 2008 and 2012).


1. Plato, Protagoras 320c; excerpts translated by W.K.C. Guthrie

2. Self-rule should be understood as a psychological condition as much if not more than a financial condition.

3. Aristotle, Politics 1280a10; translated by C.D.C. Reeve

4. Montesqueiu, Spirit of the Laws, (1,3,3)

Categories: Uncategorized

Leave a Reply