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June 2013 Policy Study, Number 13-4


Mal-apportionment and the Miracle of Iowa


What is Democracy?



Just what is democracy? Renowned political theorist Bernard Crick stated uncategorically that there is no one clear definition of the term.[2] He argued that the term democracy has its origins in four historical usages, one of which is the American Constitution. That tradition is one that relies on an actively involved citizenry and upon certain limiting principles that constrain government from behaving in a way that tramples the rights of individuals in the society.[3] Other writers in this area agree that there is no agreement on a single, precise definition,[4] but commonly mentioned is the idea that the citizens must have a meaningful opportunity to influence political outcomes. Seymour Martin Lipset defined democracy as “a political system which supplies regular constitutional opportunities for changing the governing officials.”[5]


The power of government, under the idea of a social contract as John Locke conceived it, derives from the consent of the governed. Crick argued that even modern authoritarian or totalitarian governments need the important symbolic label “democratic” to maintain control of their societies:


But in the modern industrial and globalizing world all governments seeking to manage such social transformation need mass consent — which is why so many military dictatorships claim to be democratic and . . . depend on an active mass support in a way that no despot or autocrat in older peasant societies needed to.[6]


That consent comes in the form of participation in elections whereby the people who exercise the power of the government are selected. That selection process, consisting of free and honest elections, has a powerful symbolic importance, as witnessed by the emotional responses that people in newly democratizing nations experience when they vote.[7] The legitimacy of our own national government rests in large part on our belief that candidates and political parties do not attempt to win elections via means of controlling the rules of the game as has been alleged so often in recent elections in places like Mexico,[8] Iraq,[9] Afghanistan,[10] and Egypt.[11] Rather, candidates win elections because they have convinced a majority of those voting that they are best suited to serve.


While political theorists might disagree about the precise definition of democracy, for purposes of this paper, we start with the following propositions: 1) it is a fundamental tenet of democratic theory that all citizens have the opportunity to participate in a meaningful way in their government; 2) this participation should have the potential to actually affect the policy output of a government; and, 3) this participation should also be distributed in a roughly equal fashion — no one person or group should have significantly greater access to the system than any other.


Inherent in the American version of democracy is the right to vote. Schumpeter’s famous minimalist definition of democracy is that there is “free competition for a free vote.”[12] In numerous decisions by the United States Supreme Court, the fundamental nature of the right to vote is extolled. The list of cases is well known to scholars. Yick Wo v. Hopkins (1886) marks a key beginning when Justice Matthews opined that the right to vote “is regarded as a fundamental political right, because preservative of all rights.”[13] From the cases outlawing the White Primary (Smith v. Allright 1944) to the cases establishing the “one person, one vote” rule (Baker v. Carr 1962; Wesberry v. Sanders 1964; Reynolds v. Sims 1964), the language of the Justices of the Supreme Court has made it clear that the right to vote is one of the most essential rights in our democracy. In Kramer v. Union Free School District, Chief Justice Warren said, “Any unjustified discrimination in determining who may participate in political affairs or in the selection of public officials undermines the legitimacy of representative government.”[14] There is also ample precedent for the principle that abuse of the apportionment process violates the Equal Protection Clause and the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution (Gomillion v. Lightfoot 1960).




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