Could a convention of states could change the “one state/one vote” rule to one based on population? The short answer is “No.”
In at least 42 conventions of states and colonies over 350+years, there is no precedent for such a change. The possibility exists only in the fantasies of convention opponents.
Defenders of the federal government and other opponents of an Article V convention raise the issue in two contradictory ways. In urban states, they attack the Constitution’s convention process for using the the one state/one vote rule. (The say it is “undemocratic.”) But in rural states, they attack the Constitution’s convention process because, they say, it might not use the one state/one vote rule!
(They used to claim Congress could write the rules before the evidence made that argument untenable.)
Why the Question is Based on Fantasy
The one state/one vote system is based on a core principle of interstate conventions: sovereign equality. Claims that a convention might discard that core principle disregard political, demographic, historical, and legal realties.
Let’s examine the political and demographic facts first.
Political and Demographic Realities
When the convention meets, it operates on a one state/one vote basis. To change this to a population formula requires a vote of a majority of states present—most likely 26 of 50.
Would 26 states vote for such a change? Not in a million years. Here’s why:
- A population formula would give states with more-than-average populations more power at the convention. States with less-than-average populations would lose power.
- As of 2023, the population of the fifty states (that is, excluding the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico) is 338 million. Divide that by 50 and you get the average state population: about 6.76 million.
- Thus, a change to a population formula, would cause every state with a population of less than 6.76 million to lose power.
- There are only 17 states with more than 6.75 million people. 33 states have less.
- Even if (which is unlikely) all 17 urban states voted for a population-based system, at least nine rural states would have to vote to reduce their own power.
- Some of the more conservative large states like Florida, Texas, Tennessee, and Indiana probably would not vote to change the rule—so even more rural states would have to vote to disenfranchise themselves.
The Realities of Experience
In 42 prior conventions of states and colonies held over 350 years, there were efforts to change the sovereign equality principle at only three. All lost.
- At the Albany convention of 1754, there was talk about given some colonies more weight. The idea was abandoned.
- In 1783, the Massachusetts legislature called for a convention where the decisions would be made by a majority of delegates rather than by a majority of states. The call fizzled when important states simply refused to participate.
- The 1850 Nashville Convention witnessed an effort to give larger states more representation. It failed on a series of one state/one vote roll calls.
These experiences show how well accepted the sovereign equality principle is. It also shows how efforts to change it cause states to rebel.
What Does the Constitution Say?
Some scholars argue that, in the Article V context, changing the one-state/one vote formula also would be illegal. They point out that key Founders—people like Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and Tench Coxe—characterized an amendments convention in ways consistent only with the principle of sovereign equality. (See, for example, Federalist No. 85.)
Whether or not this argument is right is less important than the fact that it could tie up any convention in litigation for months, perhaps years. Would convention commissioners from a majority of states want to destroy their own effectiveness and legitimacy in that way? If any tried, they likely would be recalled by the state legislatures that sent them.
Although a convention for proposing amendments will meet on terms of sovereign equality, any proposals will require ratification by three fourths of the states. Than means they will have to be mainstream proposals with wide public support.