With each passing election, rural and small town Americans have ever less influence on their state and national governments and ever declining control over the governance of their own communities. Their lives are increasingly controlled from distant state capitals and from the even more distant Washington, D.C., by politicians with little incentive to pay attention to their country cousins. To some extent, their disenfranchisement is the inevitable result of a century of urbanization and economic centralization. But the erosion of self-governance in rural America is also the result of a generally well intentioned but simplistic understanding of democracy and the associated elimination of institutional protections of local democratic governance.
Two ideas have been central to this effective disenfranchisement of rural America. First, that one person/one vote is an inviolable principle of democratic government under the United States Constitution. Second, that the winners of elections owe allegiance only to those who voted for them, no matter how close the margin of victory…
The reality is that rural communities have experienced a declining influence on state governance ever since reapportionment was first mandated in the 1960s. Many will say that this is as it should be. Rural and small town voters constitute minorities in every state, and minorities are supposed to lose in a democracy. But that is the same argument made against the Electoral College, given the possibility that a candidate who wins the popular vote might lose in the Electoral College, and it is an argument that also would condemn the much greater counter-majoritarian nature of the U.S. Senate.
Different and diverse majorities in each state are combined in the U.S. Senate to pursue national policies that are truly national and not just what will serve the interests of the nine states in which the majority of the nation’s population resides. There is no similar safeguard at the state level for different and diverse majorities in small town and rural communities that happen to constitute the red regions of the blue states—though there once was.
Prior to the 1964 United States Supreme Court decision in Reynolds v. Sims, most state legislatures included one house apportioned on the basis of population and a second chamber apportioned on the basis of counties or other geographical regions. Many of the former had not been reapportioned for decades, leaving growing urban areas with less representation per capita than rural regions. On the basis of the principle of one person/one vote, the Court found that the failure of most states to regularly reapportion their lower houses put them in violation of the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment.
The first thing I thought of when reading this argument was that this is a long-standing tension in American history. Thus, we have mechanisms in national government that are meant to limit some of this. From the beginning, the interests of the more urban North were pitted against the interests of the more rural South. These issues still remain even though the geography has changed since then in several important ways: there are plenty of rural areas in mid-America as well as in the West and we have a broad middle category, actually the most populous space for Americans to live, called the suburbs. Additionally, party lines have shifted.
But, we could take this in another direction and think more creatively about how to select elected officials. Huffman argues the Supreme Court limited the voice of rural voters in states when it went to a system of officials per population rather than by geographical boundaries. What might happen if we went to a system where districts were drawn only within a single geographic group: cities, suburbs, and more rural areas? Huffman seems to be suggesting that the interests of a city-dweller in Chicago or Atlanta may be much similar to each other than representatives across northern Illinois where there districts can cover all three geographic types. Suburban legislators across metropolitan regions or states might have similar interests compared to those who represent other types of geographies.
I just have to ask: would conservatives be arguing for the voters in rural areas if it were primarily Democrats in rural areas as opposed to Republicans?