THE moment my two older children turned 21, I made sure they registered as voters. And they did their citizen’s duty for the first time on May 5, 2013.
My youngest child turned 21 more than a year ago but he has dilly-dallied getting himself registered, despite my reminders.
Now I am wondering whether he should bother. After all, he will most likely be packed in with the rest of the family in a constituency that, if the Election Commission has its way, will be so malapportioned, his vote will be “diluted and debased to the point of nullification”.
Those words in quote marks come from a United States Supreme Court judge, William O. Douglas, which struck a chord in me.
Douglas uttered them during the Baker versus Carr court case of 1962, which the venerated US Chief Justice Earl Warren regarded as the most important in his 16-year tenure.
And mind you, Warren had presided over many landmark legal decisions like the rights of the accused, ending public school-sponsored prayers and school segregation.
So why Baker v. Carr and why am I telling you about this? Because I think the case is relevant to what is before us Malaysian citizens and voters.
It was about asking the highest court in the United States of America to order the state government of Tennessee to ensure that legislative districts (their version of state seats) were redrawn properly to uphold the “one person, one vote” principle.
The Tennessee State Constitution requires the state legislative districts to be redrawn or redistricted every 10 years, in accordance with the federal census, to ensure they have substantially equal populations.
Charles Baker sued Joe Carr, the Secretary of State for Tennessee, because the state had not redistricted since 1901. Baker’s assertion was that because of this, the population in his district in Shelby County had shifted so much that it had 10 times more residents than some of the rural districts. Hence, the votes of rural citizens far outweighed those of urban citizens.
To quote Wikipedia, “Baker’s argument was that this discrepancy was causing him to fail to receive the ‘equal protection of the laws’ required by the Fourteenth Amendment” of the US Constitution.
Baker v. Carr was highly contentious and exhausted the Supreme Court judges who were split in their decisions because the chief question was whether redistricting was a legal problem the courts could address to correct abuses or whether it was a political problem.
If it was a political question, then the defence argued that the courts had no business getting involved and it should be up to the legislators a.k.a. the politicians to fix the problem.
But the counter-argument was if the politicians refused to do so because it served their purpose to remain in power, then the courts had to step in to protect the voters a.k.a. the citizens.
RadioLab’s podcast on the case pointed out that in the 60 years since the last redistribution, the demographics of the state had changed dramatically with more and more people moving to the cities.
The “insidious underbelly” of it all was that the people who remained in the rural seats were white while more and more blacks were in the cities. Not redrawing the legislative districts to reflect this reality was to effectively maintain “white supremacy” in the state legislature.
Liberal judges like Douglas locked horns with conservative judges like Felix Frankfurter who warned against the courts getting entangled in what he called the “political thicket” and violating the political question doctrine, which was to uphold the separation of powers between the legislature and the courts.
Ultimately, the courts ruled for the plaintiff, which forced Tennessee and other states to redelineate to give their urban districts “the representative weight their populations deserved”.
Baker v. Carr and another case, Reynolds v. Sims (1964), finally ended the often gross malapportionment affecting many legislative districts in America.
In the words of Earl Warren, “To the extent that a citizen’s right to vote is debased, he is that much less a citizen. The weight of a citizen’s vote cannot be made to depend on where he lives. This is the clear and strong command of our Consti-tution’s Equal Protection Clause.”
We also have a “protection clause” in Article 8 of our Constitution which states “All persons are equal before the law and entitled to the equal protection of the law”.
So as a citizen and a registered voter in Selangor, I wish to invoke my constitutional right to object to the latest redelineation exercise proposed by the EC.
My parliamentary seat of PJ Utara, which currently has 84,456 voters, will be renamed Damansara with a proposed increase in the number of voters to 150,439. That is close to 10 times more than Putrajaya’s 15,627.
As The Star reported, Selangor is one of the states most affected by the EC’s proposed changes.
Far too many parliamentary and state constituencies will become “super-sized” while others will shrink in size and voters.
Understandably, Pakatan Rakyat is crying foul but it is also interesting that even Barisan Nasional component parties are unhappy with the EC’s moves.
Perhaps it does show the EC is non-partisan but how on earth did it manage to upset both sides of the political divide so badly? What was the logic and rationale behind the whole dreadful exercise?
Our apex court decided not to rule in Batu Lintang assemblyman See Chee How and Ulu Baram voter Pauls Baya’s application for leave to appeal against the EC’s redelineation of Sarawak’s electoral seats last year.
It did so on the grounds that it was “academic” since the new seat boundaries had been brought before Parliament to pass, which it did on Dec 2, 2015.
But I wonder: If the case had not become academic, would our learned judges see it as a “political question” or uphold the “one person, one vote” principle?
We pride ourselves on being a democratic nation. But democracy will always be flawed because it is (hu)man-made. The best we can do is to put in safeguards, checks and balances against those who, once voted into power, will resort to all methods to keep it.
Sadly, in our democracy, we do not have the greatest of safeguards: term limits on all elected positions so that none can think they can stay forever. Instead, time and again, we are told if we are unhappy with our elected representatives, then we should use our ballot to vote them out and not take to the streets.
But if our votes are debased to the point of nullification, what do we do then? So much for my telling my son every vote counts.
- Abraham Lincoln said the ballot is stronger than the bullet, but not if it’s been shot to pieces, says aunty. Feedback: firstname.lastname@example.org