Above and beyond intentional voter suppression, American politics is designed to make some votes count more than others. What reforms could make this country a genuine democracy?
American politics is a machine that turns idealism into disappointment.
If you only look at opinion polls, the United States should have strongly liberal politics. For example, by a 63% to 37% majority, Americans believe the government should ensure that all people have health care. Majorities also support safe and legal abortion (62% majority), tuition-free public college (63% majority), raising taxes on millionaires (67% majority), embracing renewable energy and decarbonizing the economy (69% majority), and joining international efforts to combat climate change (75% majority).
All these progressive policies are backed by supermajorities of the voting public. In a democracy, it’s reasonable to expect that they would swiftly pass into law. Yet these goals have been achieved only partially, if at all, and on some of them we’re going backwards.
Why does the United States fare so badly at reflecting the will of the voters?
American democracy is broken as designed
Of course, voter suppression is a core part of this story. Black voters are the backbone of the progressive party. Since the Civil War, conservative states have engaged in a concerted effort to stop them from voting by all means possible. The tools of voter suppression range from pseudolegal means like poll taxes, to wholly subjective “literacy tests“, to outright intimidation and terrorism like the Ku Klux Klan.
It was only with the passage of the Voting Rights Act that the most glaring of these injustices were reined in. Even then, voter suppression has never stopped. It just mutated into new forms: onerous ID requirements; gruelingly long lines which the media treats as a matter of course, rather than a sign of an underfunded system; felon disenfranchisement, combined with drug laws that were always intended to be enforced only against people of color. In recent years, Republicans have raged against mail-in voting, ballot drop boxes, and anything else that makes it easier or more convenient to vote.
However, there are more fundamental problems, which would persist even if everyone who wanted to vote was able to. American democracy is broken by design. It’s structured to privilege some voters at the expense of others, and it always has been.
Problem #1: The House of Representatives
There’s no constitutional requirement for how many members the House of Representatives has. In the past, its size would increase with every census. But it’s been stuck at 435 seats since 1929, before Alaska and Hawaii were states.
With the House capped at 435, every census is a game of musical chairs. Some states lose House seats at the expense of others. States can lose seats even with a growing population, if others grow more. Because of how seats are apportioned, smaller states have more House seats relative to their size, while larger states have fewer. This means smaller states have more political power in Congress than larger ones, relatively speaking.
Importantly, “smaller” in this context means smaller by population, not by land area. The states that benefit most from this unfair arrangement are geographically large but sparsely populated, or in other words, rural. And in America, most rural voters are white conservatives.
In effect, you gain political power in America by living far away from everybody else. This is the origin of the reformers’ slogan “land doesn’t vote, people do“.
This could be fixed by an ordinary act of Congress. A sensible way would be to take the population of the smallest state and set that as the number of voters per House seat. Larger states would gain seats in proportion to this number.
Currently the smallest state, Wyoming, has 600,000 people and one House seat. California, the largest, has 39 million people and 52 House seats. With this scheme, California would go up to 65 House seats. New York, which has 26 House seats, would go up to 33. This would restore the balance of power in favor of states where more people actually live.
Problem #2: The Senate
The Senate is even worse than the House. By the terms of the Great Compromise, every state is guaranteed two votes regardless of population. This means people living in smaller states are vastly overrepresented.
California’s 39 million citizens have just two senators. That’s roughly the same population as the 22 smallest states combined, but those states collectively have forty-four senators. Brooklyn has more people than 15 states, but each of those fifteen gets two senators of its own, while Brooklyn has to share its two with the rest of New York.
The 25 smallest states have about 53 million people, only about 15% of the U.S. population. But that small minority controls half of the Senate chamber. How can any country call itself a democracy when 15% of the population has the same voting power as the other 85%?
On top of that, the Senate’s anti-democratic rules make an already bad situation even worse. Top of the list is the filibuster, which lets 40 senators block most legislation. This grants even more disproportionate power to an even tinier minority.
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Worst of all, the prospects for reforming the Senate are dim. Article V of the Constitution says that no state can be deprived of its equal vote in the Senate, not even by a constitutional amendment. If we passed an amendment to override this, there’s no telling what would happen. With conservative courts, it could spiral into a constitutional crisis.
Another option would be to take away the Senate’s veto power, making it like the U.K. House of Lords, which can delay legislation but not stop it. Of course, the problem is that this would still take a constitutional amendment, and those require ratification by three-fourths of the states. Why would small states vote to give up the disproportionate power they have?
A more subversive solution would be for liberal voters to move en masse to red states, outvoting their existing residents. With work-from-home policies becoming common, this is more feasible than it once was, but it’d still be a massive coordination problem to persuade hundreds of thousands or millions of people to move at once.
Problem #3: The Electoral College and the presidency
The electoral college might be the ultimate example of the founders’ distrust of democracy. The House and the Senate, distorted as they are, at least promise that whichever candidate gets the most votes in a race will win. The presidency has no such guarantee. A presidential candidate can lose the popular vote by millions and still be elected.
In the electoral college, each state has votes equal to the total number of senators and representatives it has. This further boosts the already disproportionate power of rural white states at everyone else’s expense. And because the president chooses judges for lifetime appointments, it gives them outsize influence on the makeup of the judiciary as well.
Because most states have a winner-take-all scheme for awarding electoral votes, voters living in a state dominated by the other party effectively have no voice. Meanwhile, voters in the handful of swing states are hugely overvalued. A presidential candidate can win while espousing views that are drastically out of step with the country, so long as they appeal to that swing-state minority.
This is fixable without amending the Constitution. States could simply agree to award their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote. However, this runs into the same problem as Senate reform: why would small states vote to relinquish the unfair advantage they currently have?
Not a case for pessimism
These structural roadblocks have thwarted necessary change for decades of American history. Even when we have a Democratic president and majorities in Congress, those majorities tend to rest on Democrats from red states, who water down or block progressive legislation because they’re afraid of losing their seats. We saw this dynamic with Obamacare and the public option, as well as with Joe Manchin and Krysten Sinema bottlenecking the previous Congress. It’s led to one generation after another of progressive idealists growing disillusioned, cynical and burned out when they see how hard it is to get anything done.
If America were more democratic, we’d still have Christian theocrats and white nationalists, but they wouldn’t have nearly as much influence or power. Small rural states would be inconsequential, compared to the coastal metropolises where most Americans actually live. We might already have had universal health care, gun control and real rights for workers. We’d basically be a bigger, richer version of Canada.
All else being equal, if the president were chosen by national popular vote, Al Gore would have beaten George W. Bush in 2000, and Hillary Clinton would have won in 2016. There’d have been no Iraq war, no Abu Ghraib. We might have prevented 9/11. We’d undoubtedly have had a more science-guided response to COVID. We’d be a world leader at fighting climate change. We’d have a Supreme Court that protects rights rather than one that takes them away.
Best of all, the sting of repeated loss might have pushed the Republican party to cast off its extremists or face extinction. It would be forced to become more moderate, more like opposition parties elsewhere in the world.
I’m not arguing for pessimism. It would be overstating the case to say that America is hopeless or that change is impossible. On the contrary, we’ve made significant change for the better over the course of our history. The New Deal, the Great Society, the Voting Rights Act, Obamacare, the Inflation Reduction Act, and more have made the country fairer and better than it was. Step by painful step, we’ve drawn closer to the high aspirations contained in the best parts of our founding documents.
It’s genuinely impressive that American progressives have achieved as much as we have despite all the hurdles put in the way. It’s testament to the reformers’ ingenuity, tenacity and fighting spirit. But it should never have had to be this hard.