17. Unequal Voting Representation Secured the Triumph of an Unpopular Law
Today, we take “one person, one vote” as a given. That had not always been the case, and it certainly was not so in the early twentieth century when Prohibition was ratified. Back then, rural citizens were routinely overrepresented in state legislatures, while urban citizens were underrepresented. In New York, for example, an urban legislator might represent seven times as many people as the rural legislator seated next to him. Thus the vote of a single Upstate citizen – most likely protestant, prohibitionist, and Republican – was equivalent to the vote of seven Irish-American anti-prohibition Democrats from Manhattan.
The figures were even more skewed in New Jersey, where each county got a state senator, regardless of population: pro-Prohibition rural Cape May County, population 19,000, had the same representation as anti-Prohibition urban Essex County, population 652,000. Prohibitionists and their leading organization, the Anti-Saloon League, had long understood and accepted that they were a minority. They sought to avoid referendums because they knew that if voters were given the option of a straight up or down vote on Prohibition, Prohibition would lose. Instead, prohibitionists concentrated on leveraging their committed and disciplined followers into disciplined block voting that could swing elections and capture legislatures.