Do majorities rule? Not in congressional elections A handful of farmers still outweigh the city voters

Ian Sclanders May 19 1962

Do majorities rule? Not in congressional elections A handful of farmers still outweigh the city voters

Ian Sclanders May 19 1962

Do majorities rule? Not in congressional elections A handful of farmers still outweigh the city voters


Ian Sclanders

In Canada, as everybody knows, the political strength of rural people is out of all proportion to their number. The reason: although the country’s

population is more than two thirds urban, electoral districts are still influenced by the patterns set when it was more than two thirds rural.

This pattern favors rural areas, which ha\e shrunk, been static or grown slowly. and discriminates against fastgrowing urban centres. In Ontario, for example, the constituency of Bruce, with 17,142 registered voters, and the Toronto constituency of York-Scarborough, with 112,628 registered voters, ha\e one member each in the House of Commons. It can thus be argued—and occasionally is—that since York-S carborough has seven times the population of Bruce one vote in Bruce is worth seven in York-Scarborough.

Canada’s federal constituencies are due to be reshuffled, but this won’t happen for a year and a half and, at best, is unlikely to eliminate all the inequities. Meanwhile, there’s little or no prospect of much being done to give urban Canadians a fairer share of the seats in provincial legislatures. It’s typical that Vancouver, with nearly half the population of British Columbia, has only a quarter of the seats in the B. C. legislature, and that Montreal, with a third of the total population of Quebec, has a mere one seventh of the legislative seats.

The situation is worse in the U. S.

But if you think the situation in Canada is bad. and wonder why cities and towns tolerate it, you should look at the situation as it exists today in the United States.

New Hampshire has one electoral district with a population of exactly three persons: one, tw'o. three. The three are entitled to one seat in New Hampshire’s House of Representatives, and to the same voice in the deliberations of the body as 3,224 people in another New Hampshire district which also has one seat.

While this is an oddity, a recent study by Paul David and Ralph Eisenberg of the University of Virginia shows that, in practically every state, there is a startling difference between the electoral district with the smallest population and the electoral district with the largest.

The smallest district that elects a member of the House of Representatives in Alabama has 6,731 residents and the largest has 104.767. The figures for some other states are: Arkansas. 4.927 and 31,089; California, 72,105 and 443,892; Connecticut, 191 and 31,089; Florida, 2,868 and 31 1.682; Idaho. 915 and 23,365; Illinois, 34,783 and 126,850; Maryland, 6.541 and 82,071: Montana, 849 and 12,537; Minnesota, 7.503 and 99.446; Mississippi, 3.576 and 59,542; Missouri, 3.936 and 87,474; New' Mexico, 1.874 and 29,133; New York. 15,044 and 222.261; Oklahoma, 4.496 and 62,786; Pennsylvania. 4.485 and 139.293; Rhode Island, 486

and 18.977; Tennessee. 3.454 and 79,310; Virginia, 20,071 and 142.597.

Tw'o other researchers, Manning Dauer and Robert Delsay, calculate that a majority in the state House of Representatives could be elected by 9.59 percent of the population in Connecticut. 12.58 percent of the population of Vermont. 17.19 percent of the population in Florida, and 19.40 percent in Delaware.

To appreciate the significance of such statistics, there are three things you should keep in mind:

( 1 ) The rural voter in the U. S.. fatmore than his Canadian counterpart, tends to be extremely conservative. He’s opposed to most social legislation, he’s down on labor unions, and. if he’s a white southerner, he’s almost certain to be against desegregation, which he probably regards as part of a communist plot.

(2) Federal electoral districts are fixed by state legislatures rather than by federal authorities. The legislatures, loaded with politicians from the whistlestops and the back roads, draw district boundaries that assure rural areas more representation than they are entitled to in the U. S. Congress. The legislatures have, in addition, been responsible for the poll taxes, literacy tests and other devices used to prevent Negroes from voting. To a considerable extent, the manoeuvring by rustics in the state legislatures has sent to Congress more obstructionists and plain boobs than the American electorate really deserves.

( 3 ) The U. S. system of government is more vulnerable to obstructionists and boobs than Canada’s. Members of our parliament are more or less obligated to stick to party lines, and each owes an allegiance to his leader. Members of Congress are not under the same kind of an obligation and vote as they choose. Thus, although President Kennedy is the leader of the Democrats, several of the most important items in his legislative program have been defeated by a coalition of southern Democrats and northern Republicans.

When contemplating the nature of the U. S. rural voter, the manner in w'hich state legislatures gerrymander congressional electoral districts, and the weaknesses or strengths—-depending on your point of view—-of the American governmental system, you soon realize the enormous implications of the historic decision handed down late in March by the U. S. Supreme Court, in a case brought by a group of Tennessee city-dwellers. The city men claimed that they are entitled to the same political rights as their country cousins. Six of the eight justices who heard the action agreed. The justices ruled that the apportionment of seats in a state legislature can be so arbitrary and unfair as to violate the Constitution and that it is the duty of federal courts to scrutinize this apportionment if it’s challenged in a lawsuit. They directed a threejudge federal district court to scrutinize apportionment of Tennessee’s electoral districts.

Ever since, one development has quickly followed another. In Alabama, where the legislature since 1901 has consistently ignored a state requirement that legislative seats be reapportioned on the basis of population every ten years, a three-judge federal panel has ordered the legislature to redistrict in time for the November elections. The panel added that if the legislators didn't do this, the court would do it for them. In Georgia, where two suits challenging the present apportionment have been filed. Governor Ernest Vandiver has called a special session of the general assembly. In other states. New York among them, the Supreme Court's decision has prompted urban residents to demand that their legislators immediately overhaul electoral districts and make them conform to the realities of population changes. In each case the demand has been bolstered by a threat, for the urban residents now have clearcut legal ground to stand on when they ask for more equal representation.

Barnyard rule is doomed

It’s already plain that the days of what the late H. L. Mencken, the famous Baltimore editor, termed “barnyard" rule, are doomed in the U. S. congress.

What does this mean to America?

It means that the vote of the urban American — and three quarters of Americans are urban—will at last be worth as much as the vote of the rural American.

It means that there wall be a shift toward liberalism, for the American in the city is less reactionary, and has more enthusiasm for civil rights and social welfare, than the American on the farm.

It means a gain for organized labor, which has always had to buck rural suspicion and hostility.

It means a better deal for Negroes. While there have been appalling demonstrations of racial enmity in places like Detroit and Chicago, cities as a whole are more inclined to accept the Negro as a first-class citizen than are country hamlets.

It means an improvement in John Kennedy’s chances of implementing his election promises, among them a department of urban affairs to cope with the problems of cities’ medical care for the aged, and federal aid for schools.

It will mean other changes — will have an impact on the whole American scene.

Ironically, it’s doubtful whether many of the 2.000,000 Americans it may do most for have even heard of it for comparatively few of them have had enough schooling to digest a newspaper headline. These are the Americans of whom the farmers in the southern states say: “We owned slaves a century ago; now we just lease ’em.” Northern farmers lease them, too. Today’s slaves are migrant farm workers. Labor contractors lease them to farmers to harvest fruits and vegetables.

Just a half a dozen states out of fifty

have any laws whatever to protect the itinerant agricultural laborers, who are homeless, penniless, illiterate and hopeless, from being exploited and cheated by brutal and criminal contractors and the meanest farm owners. The contractors and the farm owners have been exposed time and again in magazines and newspapers, on radio and television, and before congressional committees. Their inhumanity is a matter of record and a subject of public knowledge. Americans, as a whole, are aware that a couple of million of their fellow' citizens, without whom the crops couldn’t be harvested, are as downtrodden. ill-housed and badly fed as Chinese coolies.

The plight of the migrant farm hand has, indeed, been a national disgrace. It was a national disgrace in 1939 when John Steinbeck described it in his shocking early novel. The Grapes of Wrath.

It remains a national disgrace in 1962. It will presumably continue to be a national disgrace until the Tennessee decision so alters the composition of state legislatures throughout the land that farm-owners won’t be able to stop the enactment of laws to protect farm labor. That, from current signs, may be in the not-distant future, for city folks at last appear determined to put an early end to barnyard government.