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John Rennie Short
Professor, School of Public Policy, UMBC

As we enter the traditional, post-Labor Day sprint in the campaign season, voters may want to consider how much their vote really counts. In the United States, the difference between the popular will and political representation is growing and some votes count more than others.

When voters wield unequal power, that is a problem for democracy.

I’m a social scientist and public policy scholar who studies sources of stress in the U.S. political system. Here are three sources of a growing deficit of democracy.

The Senate

In the U.S. Senate, some voters count more than others.

This began in the earliest days of the Republic when each state, despite differing population size, was allocated two senators.

Photo by Jomar on Unsplash

At the time of the First Congress in 1789, the population of the largest and smallest state, respectively Virginia and Delaware was 110,936 and 11,783. Those counts only include include free white males over 16, because that’s who got to vote at the time. Virginia had roughly nine times the population of Delaware.

But by the time of the 2016 presidential election, the population of the most and least populous states, California and Wyoming, was respectively 39,254,503 and 585,501. The most populous state had 67 times the population of the least populous state.

This system puts disproportionate influence in the hands of small states. Long-term senators from small states can amass seniority that bestows enormous power beyond their demographic significance.

The current leader of the Senate, Mitch McConnell, represents Kentucky – a state with a total population of only just over 4 million. And while the U.S. population of 325 million is 72 percent white and 13 percent foreign-born, Kentucky is 89 percent white with only 3 percent foreign-born.

More than a quarter of the entire U.S. population lives in just 10 metropolitan areas across only 16 states. Yet Senate representation still reflects the political realities of the largely rural 18th century, when population was spread more evenly throughout the country, rather than the demographic realities of the metropolitan 21st century.The opinions of the metropolitan majority on such issues as gun control, abortion rights or immigration policy are often overruled in the Senate by the preferences of voters in small, rural states.

To be sure, the U.S. was never designed as a direct democracy but as a republic, where multiple sources of governmental power were to be a check on power. But is it democratic when one of the other branches of government, the Supreme Court, can be appointed by a majority of senators who represent a minority of the U.S. population?

The House

Seats in the House of Representatives are, unlike the Senate, allocated on the basis of population, but since the 1960s Democratic voters are pooling into dense areas. That lessens their overall effectiveness as they tend to win big in a few districts while Republicans have a wider national spread.

The current system of winner-takes-all elections – where even the narrowest of winners is the people’s only representative – gives the Republicans an advantage over Democrats.

And that does not factor in partisan gerrymandering, which is the manipulation of voting boundaries to engineer specific political outcomes.

The U.S. Constitution requires each state to establish new congressional districts every 10 years to reflect the population changes measured by the census.

This congressional redistricting is freighted with partisan political interests. Take the case of Utah. The results of the 2010 Census revealed enough population increase in that state to justify increasing the number of congressional districts from three to four.

The Republicans control the Utah state legislature and thus the redistricting.

The Utah Republicans’ redistricting created gerrymandered districts that favored GOP voters. That neutered voters in the more Democratic-leaning Salt Lake City, and in the 2016 congressional election Republicans won just 66 percent of all votes but still swept all four congressional seats. The Democrats picked up over a third of all votes in the state but won no congressional seats.

Gerrymandering also occurred in Democratic-controlled Maryland, where the post-2010 redistricting packed Republican voters into a few districts.

Over a third of all votes cast in the state in the 2016 congressional races were for Republican Party candidates but Republicans won only one out of eight districts.

According to a 2017 Associated Press analysis, current gerrymandering favors Republicans across the country. Gerrymandered districts produce safe seats and lock politicians into political postures that promote ideological purity and party loyalty over bipartisan negotiation.

Primary voters in gerrymandered districts thus count more than the general voting public.


Photo by Elliott Stallion on Unsplash

The Electoral College

The president is elected by the Electoral College. There are 538 electors with each state allocated one each for their congressional representatives and senators. California has 55 and Wyoming has three.

All the electors in a state are pledged to the presidential candidate with the majority of votes. Only Maine and Nebraska allow proportional representation. A successful campaign needs to get over 270 Electoral College votes.

After 1888, when Republican Benjamin Harrison won the Electoral College 233 to 168 but lost the popular vote, the system worked well. The popular vote and the Electoral College were in sync for over a century.

However, in both 2000 and 2016, a candidate won the presidency without obtaining a majority of popular votes. If presidents were elected by a simple and obvious popular vote we would have had President Albert Gore and President Hillary Clinton.

The Electoral College overvalues voters in key swing states such as Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin and devalues voters in other states.

By not reflecting the popular vote, the Electoral College does not transmit the will of the people. Instead, I believe it is starting to undermine it.

The system is also vulnerable to manipulation. There is mounting evidence that Russian operatives concentrated their cybertactics in 2016 in states where key Electoral College votes were in play.

This suggests that the Electoral College is now identified as a weak point by our enemies.

While there is much talk about the fiscal deficit or the infrastructure deficit, less attention is paid to the mounting democratic deficit. The more undemocratic tendencies of the U.S. electoral system are growing stronger.

The U.S. system faces this deficit because, while all voters get to exercise political choice, only some get to exercise real political power.

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John Rennie Short, Professor, School of Public Policy, University of Maryland, Baltimore County

Header photo by Parker Johnson on Unsplash

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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