The tyranny of one
Recently, this observer commented on Newdow vs. Congress – the case in which a three-judge panel of the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals voted two-to-one to outlaw the Pledge of Allegiance because it contains the phrase “One nation, under God.”
This two-to-one vote highlights what this observer feels is a serious problem in American democracy. The problem is the tyranny of what amounts to a majority of one. Here is how it works:
Let’s say you have a three-person board of county commissioners or a three-person city council or town board or a three-judge panel. Let’s say one of the three members can, by dint of persuasion or force of personality, always control the vote of one of the other members of that board, council or panel. That means you have what amounts to rule by one person.
Why this human condition occurs so often is beyond this observer’s power to explain; however, I have seen it happen time and time again. Let’s say board member A and board member C do not agree on a wide variety of issues. This means the vote of board member B is always the deciding vote. Thus, board member A and board member C try to influence the vote of board member B.
In the ideal market place of ideas, the intellectual jousting to obtain the support of board member B seems fair and reasonable; however, in the real world of personal relations, it quite often doesn’t work that way.
For example, let’s say that when the voters elected A, B and C to office they did not know that A and B were related in some way – either by blood or marriage or that they are secret lovers. Or, that B owes A a lot of money. Or, that A knows something about B that B does not want known to the public. Or, it could be that B simply likes the way that A thinks and always votes with A for that reason. The list of circumstances whereby A could control the vote of B could be endless.
Therefore, in the voting war between A and C, B always votes with A. This means that board member C and all the people who voted for C are, in effect, disenfranchised. In other words, board member C might as well not show up at the board meeting. The presence of A and B assure a quorum sufficient to conduct official business.
Hello. Earth to board member C: you might as well stay home. Hello. Earth to all those who believe in and voted for the platform or agenda of board member C: your votes now amount to: zilch, nada, nothing. One person is controlling your board and that person is board member A.
So what’s the remedy for this all-too-often-occurring situation? Answer: the five-member board. The interpersonal dynamics of a five-member board are usually too complex to permit the tyranny of one-person rule.
Granted, the addition of two board members may mean two additional salaries and perhaps some staff support for the two added members. But that could be a small price to pay compared with having one-third of the electorate disenfranchised by the closed relationship of board members A and B.
Depending on the issues involved, some lobbyists prefer the three-member board. After all, they only have to target the dominant member which is board member A which automatically means they get the vote of board member B and thus the lobbyist gets whatever he or she wants from the board or council.
Fortunately, all state legislative committees of which this observer is aware, have at least seven members – usually, four from the majority party and three from the minority party. This means more work for lobbyists, but a better deal for the taxpayers.
If your county, city or town is actually being run by only one person, you might consider the five-member body.
William Hamilton, a nationally syndicated columnist and featured commentator for USA Today, is the co-author of The Grand Conspiracy by William Penn – a novel about a terrorist attack on Colorado’s high country.
©2002. William Hamilton.