Direct democracy is not possible in a nation as populous as the United States is now, or even as it was in 1787 when the Constitution of the United States was drafted. Accordingly, the objective was then, and is now, to devise and implement as fair and effective a plan of democratic REPRESENTATION as possible.
The idea of fair and effective representation at each level of government was not new in 1787. The search for such a formula lies at the center of Anglo-American political thought. In 1690 JOHN LOCKE sought to abolish England's rotten boroughs by urging that, "it being the interest as well as the intention of the people, to have a fair and equal representation, whoever brings it nearest to that is an undoubted friend to and establisher of the government, and cannot miss the consent and approbation of the community."
Although Britain did not put an end to its rotten boroughs until near the middle of the twentieth century, the issue of how best to structure a truly representative government was very much alive at the time the various proposals for the American Constitution were being debated. At last a compromise was struck in the CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTION OF 1787, giving equal representation to each state in the Senate and representation based on population in the House of Representatives. Article I, section 2, of the Constitution provides that "Representatives ? shall be apportioned among the several states ? according to their respective numbers ?," with recomputation of the apportionment every ten years, and each state to have at least one representative regardless of population. But the task of fixing the formula for the apportioning process was left to Congress, and no directions at all were established to guide the states in the parallel function of allocating seats in the state legislature or in local governmental bodies. We are not, however, left entirely in doubt about what Congress thought appropriate for apportionment in the states. The NORTHWEST ORDINANCE of 1787 provided that representation in the territorial legislatures to be created in that area should be based on population. In general, the states accepted the principle of reasonably equal population among legislative districts, but the principle was often modified by assurances of at least one representative from each county or township or municipality. Departures from population equality may not have been
egregious in this time of mostly rural dispersal; but by the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries what had once been minor deviations became major divergences.
JOHN QUINCY ADAMS observed in 1839 that the division of sovereign powers between the states and the nation, as set out in the Constitution, gave us "the most complicated government on the face of the globe." The twentieth century has proved how right he was. The interaction between increasingly potent national and state governments, frequently aggravated by friction arising out of competition for power, has produced a delicately balanced division of power and a complexity of relationships probably unsurpassed in the history of governmental institutions.
Yet it is the proud boast of FEDERALISM in the United States that the governments of the fifty states and that of the nation can work together in common purpose rather than in a relationship of competition and mistrust. Moreover, it is a basic premise of representative democracy in the United States that the people are entitled to representation somewhat in proportion to their numbers, at every level of government. The tradition of majority rule cannot otherwise be attained. Neither the division of sovereign powers prescribed in the federal system nor the fairness of legislative representation formulas can long be left unattended. Vigilant superintendence by an informed electorate is essential.
Even the wisest political scientists have difficulty in defining the precise meaning of representative democracy. There is, however, general agreement that representative democracy in the United States includes something of liberty, equality, and majority rule. Even though these qualities are scarcely less abstract, it can surely be said that representative democracy relates to the processes by which citizens exert control over their leaders. From the time of the Constitutional Convention debate has centered on the extent to which, and the ways in which, majority control over leaders should be exercised. Congress has wrestled with the issue, with inconclusive results. In 1842, for example, Congress required each state to establish compact, contiguous, single-member congressional districts as nearly equal in population as possible. These criteria, however, lapsed in 1911. In any event, no enforcement method had been established, and the courts considered the issue none of their business.
Not until more than a hundred years after the RATIFICATION OF THE CONSTITUTION in 1789 did such states as California, Illinois, Michigan, New York, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, responding to new pressures, abandon the equal-population principle in one or both houses. So widespread had been the original acceptance of the equality concept that no fewer than thirty-six of the original state constitutions provided that representation in both houses of the state legislature would be based completely, or predominantly, on population. Between 1790 and 1889 no state was admitted to the Union in which its original constitution did not provide for representation principally based on population in both houses of the state legislature.
To speak of the equal-population principle as the basis for apportionment of those nineteenth-century legislatures is not to say that there was mathematically precise equality among the districts at that time. The western states, for example, commonly relied on county lines in drawing their apportionment formulas. The distortions that resulted from assuring each county at least one representative, for example, or from grouping whole counties to form election districts, were much less pronounced in agricultural and rural America than in present-day industrial and urban America. The population of the United States, outside the few great commercial centers in the East, was spread thinly across the face of the country.
The drift from relative equality to substantial inequality would have moved at about the same pace as the shift in population from rural to urban America; and that would have been bad enough. But some states accelerated the trend away from the equality principle by other devices as well. As state legislatures were enlarged, additional seats were granted to the areas of new growth without diminishing representation of the declining population areas. As the population of rural areas declined, state legislatures abandoned even the formal acceptance of equal population as a controlling principle, typically guaranteeing each county (or township) one representative. Some states, unable or unwilling to change the constitutional requirement for equality among districts, simply ignored the mandate for decennial change. (Tennessee is a good example; the state constitutional requirement of reapportionment every ten years was ignored between 1901 and 1961, giving rise in 1962 to BAKER V. CARR.)
The consequence of these factors, singly or in combination, was by the middle of the twentieth century a remarkable skewing of voter impact, ordinarily giving the less populated areas of a state a disproportionate influence in legislative representation. The impact was most marked at the state and local legislative levels, but not without considerable influence on...