Governments with different weights of representatives
March 13, 2019 5:05 PM   Subscribe

Are there any examples out there of a representative government where the members elected to the body have different weights assigned to their voting? The higher political level, the better. Examples of what I do and don't mean...

I'm not referring to a system like the US House of Representatives or most Westminster-style parliaments where districts are allocated / drawn (roughly) proportionally to population, so Texas has 36 representatives and Rhode Island only 2, but each representative's vote on a bill counts the same.

I'm also not referring to a system like the US Senate where Texas and Rhode Island each have the same number of senators, so Rhode Island voters have effectively more power per capita.

And I'm also not thinking of different amounts of power between different houses of a multicameral legislature, such as in the US where each senator has 1/100 of the vote and each representative has 1/435; or weird procedural edge cases like where the VP or speaker normally has no vote but votes to break ties on rare occasion.

The system I'm thinking of could have 1 representative each for Texas and Rhode Island, but the vote of the Texas representative is worth, say, 36 points and the vote of the Rhode Islander is worth 2. (Or even potentially the RI vote could be worth 1.052931 and the TX vote worth 25.146105 or whatever.) A variant on this system could have, say, 6 Texas representatives with votes worth 6 points each and 1 Rhode Islander with a vote worth 2 points.

Note I'm looking for political examples involving representatives; this sort of thing is extremely common in corporate settings where the voting control is (typically) divided on a per-share basis, so if Ahmed has 20 shares, Blake has 20, Carmen has 20 and Deshaun has 50, Deshaun will win all votes unless the other three vote together.

I know that this might not work well in practice due to representatives or citizens feeling like they aren't important, or whatever, I'm just wondering if it exists anywhere.
posted by Homeboy Trouble to Law & Government (9 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
The UN Security Council, maybe? I don't know all the details but there are the five permanent members versus the rotating seats and then the permanent members have veto power which the others don't.
posted by XMLicious at 5:30 PM on March 13 [2 favorites]

I think the term of art here is weighted voting (and the sub-type of plural voting).
posted by Chrysostom at 5:32 PM on March 13 [1 favorite]

In the US, congressional representatives from D.C. U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, American Samoa, Northern Mariana Islands, and Puerto Rico have weight 0 while those from other places have weight 1.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 8:35 PM on March 13 [4 favorites]

In the EU, one of the legislative bodies is the Council of the European Union which is made up of the elected heads of government from the 28 member states. If you squint your eyes, you can think of it as the EU equivalent of the US Senate, with the European Parliament the equivalent of Congress, and the European Commission the equivalent of the Presidency.

Under the Lisbon Treaty, there are three ways for the Council to pass legislation, depending on the policy issue: Unanimity, where every member state agrees, Majority Voting, which is more than 50% of member states, and (most commonly) Qualified Majority Voting (QMV), which is by majority of member states AND majority of population represented by those member states.

I think QMV is pretty much what you describe? Here is an illustration of how it works from Wikipedia.
posted by rollick at 4:25 AM on March 14 [1 favorite]

This is how the European Council works. There's only one representative per country, but the votes are weighted roughly by population. When new members join, they have to re-weight all the votes.
posted by kevinbelt at 4:32 AM on March 14 [2 favorites]

Here are a few examples:

Formally, for a resolution to pass in the UN Security Council, nine of the fifteen members, including all of the five permanent members, have to vote for it. It turns out (see for example Ferguson's game theory textbook, page IV-19) that this is equivalent to each of the five permanent members getting 7 votes, each of the other ten getting 1 vote, and 39 votes are needed to pass a measure. But this is only sort of an example because the rules aren't stated in these terms; it's more of a nice mathematical trick.

The same text (pages IV-18 to IV-19) gives the example of the Nassau County Board of Supervisors, which in 1964 had six members representing cities of different sizes, who got 31, 31, 28, 21, 2 and 2 votes respectively. If you need 58 votes (a majority) to win it turns out that you just need two of the top three. There's a whole theory of this stuff, around the Shapley value and the Banzhaf power index.

In the early 20th century, Georgia (the state, not the country) had the county unit system where, in primary elections, counties had 6, 4, or 2 votes depending on their population. As you might expect this meant that the small counties had hugely disproportionate influence, because the range of populations in different counties was much bigger than that. It was eventually struck down.
posted by madcaptenor at 11:37 AM on March 14 [1 favorite]

I don't know off the top of my head of modern examples of this in a national government, but you see it all the time in corporations (where it's referred to as dual-class stock), as a way of allowing the owner of the company to sell an economic interest in the business while maintaining control over decisions. Even in the corporate context, it's controversial.

As madcaptenor mentioned, there have been local governments with this type of system in the United States decades ago, but they have mostly been found unconstitutional by the Supreme Court for violating the "one person, one vote" standard.
posted by Pfardentrott at 2:33 PM on March 15

Thanks for the answers!

I was thinking about this because of the problems in representation in areas with high urbanization but low overall population density, like here in Canada. My home province of Alberta is having an election right now, with 81 MLAs (individual district representatives, like House of Reps in the US) being elected.

Because of the way the province's population exists, there a number of large rural ridings (districts); five ridings that are larger than Belgium (or Massachusetts), and the largest of these is bigger than South Korea (or Colorado). On the other hand, I live in the centre of the city of Calgary, which has 26 provincial electoral districts. But the municipal government has only 14 councillors, so my city councillor, theoretically my most local politician, actually represents about twice as many people (over more than twice the area) as my provincial representative does. So rural residents feel disenfranchised; the Drumheller-Stettler riding has three constituent offices, and you could still live in a decent sized town and be two hours drive from the closest one.

Under the one representative having one vote in the legislature model, it's not possible to keep some form of representation by population ("one person, one vote") and fix both the urban and rural areas; if you increase the number of ridings so rural residents have representatives that live closer to them, then the urban ones get even more comically small; if you decrease the number of ridings so that my city has more municipal representatives than provincial ones, there would be even bigger rural ridings, potentially the size of the UK (or Montana).

So the potential solution to keep rep by pop but improve riding sizes could be to have fewer urban representatives with more voting power each; if representatives from the two major urban areas had double the vote of the rural representatives, you could achieve representation by population, the provincial districts in the big cities would be about the same size as the municipal ones, and the rural ridings could be about 2/3 the size.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 2:51 PM on April 5

You might also be interested in the concept of multi-member districts, in that case.
posted by kevinbelt at 4:56 AM on April 6

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