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OpEdNews Op Eds    H1'ed 3/7/18

One Man, One Vote

By       (Page 1 of 1 pages)   12 comments, In Series: Balanced Voting
Follow Me on Twitter     Message Paul Cohen

It may not rhyme, but with two phrases of two syllables each, this old saying has a very catchy rhythm to it. That and the repetition of the word One also helps it lodge in the mind. Having heard it recited many times over the years, we may grow to feel that old saying surely must carry a great load of wisdom. People may even infer that what it says is the very essence of democracy.

A decent education should teach us to be more careful with reasoning than is illustrated by this example, but still, this sort of thinking is simple, easy, appealing and even when you see through it, a bit charming. Most likely that the saying was invented many years ago, probably not so much for provoking serious thinking but rather as a slogan to raise emotions in a campaign for voting rights. The repetition of the word One and the nice rhythm surely were surely not accidents.

But along with the nice rhythm there is a troubling ambiguity lurking within this familiar old saying. For one thing there is that reference to man. I recall being taught in grade school (for me that was back in the 1950's) that man in this context should be interpreted in the inclusive way we interpret mankind; women being allowed to vote, this seemed at the time entirely reasonable to me. But in all likelihood the campaign slogan dates from an earlier time when women could not vote. In today's culture however, that first two-syllable phrase may cause offense or even generate anger. Sadly though, with its extra syllable, One Person, One Vote, just does not sound as good. It just does not retain the appealing rhythm that One Man, One Vote enjoyed. It fails to lodge in our minds as readily.

Some of the resistance to alternative voting systems is probably rooted more in that old saying, One Man, One Vote than in any deep soil of thinking. And in this respect, changing Man to Person does nothing at all to help. The trouble is not with the word Man but the phrase, One Vote.

Whenever there are more than just two candidates in competition, voters' opinions become more complex; more complicated voting needed to allow voters to express their complicated opinions more fully and accurately. But are we to consider these complex votes as a single vote or as many? And if the interpretation is many then trouble arises. That old saying is pretty short and pithy and there surely is room to argue what exactly it means. Does it really mean each person gets only one vote?

For perspective on the question we might remember that we are talking about an old campaign slogan, not a law of nature; it's a relic of popular culture and we don't have to take it so very seriously. Nonetheless, One Man, One Vote seems to carry tremendous weight many people when discussing the adoption of an alternative voting system. It seems possible that this is only because they fundamentally object to change of any sort and One Man, One Vote is the best argument against this change that they can come up with. A famous poet and philosopher or the 19th century had a comment that seems particularly relevant.

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds -- Ralph Waldo Emerson

It is worth note that we've never really taken the word One in that phrase entirely literally; when we go to the polls to vote on election day we are usually asked to cast several, some times many votes. We don't have to choose between casting our single vote for a Senator or instead for a Representative or perhaps for President; we cast many votes and we don't even think of that as a violation of the One Person, One Vote dictum.

Strictly speaking, it could be argued to be such a violation. That may seem foolish, but is it really any less foolish to insist that Ranked Voting or Approval Voting be rejected because someone judges there might be a violation of the supremely important principle of One Man, One Vote?

It's not engraved in stone
It's not engraved in stone
(Image by Paul Cohen)
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I suspect that whoever penned that old campaign slogan never dreamed that it would some day be interpreted legalistically to form an argument for curtailing voters' ability to express themselves accurately. Much more likely, what was meant was that having a title or owning property should be irrelevant when it comes to voting and every man (or person) must have the same right to vote. It is unlikely that One Man, One Vote was written by an attorney or intended to have the force of law.

In an earlier article, I pointed out that there was this unfortunate ambiguity in the word vote and I observed that was a source of confusion when it comes to discussing more expressive voting systems. In that earlier article, I introduced the word votelet as a technical term to denote one of the component pieces of such a complex vote. But I could have as easily introduced a word such as voteplex for the entire complex of votelets. In this way we could even relegate the vague and confusing word vote to use only as a verb and never as a noun.

That change in our language seems improbable of course, but just consider the benefit of adding yet another syllable!

One person,

One voteplex.

It is politically correct and once again it has a nice rhythm to it! Now there are three syllables in each of two phrases and the word One still gets to be repeated. Perhaps with enough repetitions to embed this in our minds, this could replace One Man, One Vote as a campaign slogan for voting in the twenty-first century and there would no longer be any doubts about whether a voteplex could incorporate as many votelets as voters might need in order to accurately express their opinions.

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Attended college thanks to the generous state support of education in 1960's America. Earned a Ph.D. in mathematics at the University of Illinois followed by post doctoral research positions at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. (more...)

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