by Daniel Baer
Thursday, 7
January 2021

How to make American democracy more democratic

by Daniel Baer
USA voting patterns for 2016

The United States is more polarised today than at any point since the 1860s. While Donald Trump has lost the White House, Congress, and, after the January 5 run-off elections in Georgia, the Senate too, Democratic majorities in those deliberative bodies will remain narrow. Partisan feeling, wherever you choose to look, is running high. How do you fix a problem like American democracy?

After Wednesday’s maudlin and humiliating scene — the occasion of which was the official counting of Electoral College votes — it seems obvious that one way would be to abolish the Electoral College. Since its founding, the United States has made its elections more democratic—there’s no reason why the elimination of the Electoral College should not be seen as an overdue and unexceptional continuation of that trend.

The barrier to a constitutional amendment eliminating the Electoral College any time soon is simple: it requires ratification by three quarters of states, and that is a very high bar because there will always be one party that has a better chance of winning in the Electoral College than it does in the popular vote, and that party will block reform for political reasons dressed up as philosophical ones.

Even Before November, Democrats made noises about abolishing the College. Then the election happened: although Joe Biden won the popular vote by over 7 million votes, his margin in the Electoral College was exactly the same as Trump’s 2016 result, when Trump lost the popular vote by almost 3 million votes. Even more confounding, Biden’s Electoral College win can be traced not to his huge popular vote margin, but rather to razor thin margins in Georgia, Arizona, and Wisconsin — three states he won by a combined total of fewer than 50,000 votes. If he had lost those states, the electoral college outcome would have been tied at 269 votes each.

Right now, Republicans have a clear advantag, and therefore, reforming the Electoral College now looks as far away as it did four years ago. An unfair and archaic system is likely to endure because, while it does not naturally advantage either party, it has almost always advantaged one or the other.

That’s why, instead of focusing on abolishing the Electoral College, democrats (small “d”) should instead work to expand the House of Representatives. The size of the House of Representatives — 435 Members — has been the same since 1913. In the 108 years since, the population of the United States has more than tripled. Each Member of the House of Representatives now represents approximately 760,000 people, as compared to the 215,000 they represented in 1913. The U.S. is an outlier among major industrialised democracies for the number of constituents assigned to each representative in proportionate national legislative bodies. For comparison’s sake, the UK House of Commons has approximately one MP per 100,000 UK residents.

While technology has made it easier for U.S. Members of Congress to stay connected with their districts over the last century, the duties of a Member extend beyond representing the interests of her or his district. Good Members excel at “constituent services” — following up when a senior citizen is having trouble getting social security payments or when a small business needs help navigating export approvals or a veteran isn’t being served by a local veterans’ hospital. In the same 100 years that the number of people represented by each Member of Congress has tripled, the federal government as a proportion of GDP has vastly expanded too — whether its income tax, environmental regulation, or education, there are simply more things that the federal government does (and that constituents might need help with) than there were a century ago. The idea that one person can represent three quarters of a million people effectively is untenable.

And here’s the other advantage to expanding the House: it would be consistent with the spirit of ensuring the representation of minority interests that some cite as a rationale for the makeup of the Senate (where even states with small populations get two senators), and indeed for the Electoral College itself. House districts have become so large that even if a district includes, say 250,000 rural people, it may also include 500,000 urban dwellers who have markedly different policy priorities. Indeed, one of the problems with the Electoral College is that it doesn’t so much protect the interests of rural populations in North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, and Montana as it does make effectively irrelevant the preferences of rural inhabitants of California who significantly outnumber all those in the aforementioned states combined. The expansion of the House would likely send more farmers to Congress, and also more members of diaspora communities, under-represented minorities, and others who are not reflected in the still relatively homogenous makeup of the U.S. Congress today.

It’s also more plausible than a constitutional amendment: Congress could expand the House of Representatives through simple legislation (it is capped at its current number by the Reapportionment Act of 1929, which would need to be amended). There are different ways to target a new number. One way would be simply to double or triple the number of seats, which would return the U.S. to constituencies the same size as they were in the 1950s or 1910s, respectively. Another idea that has been floated is the “Wyoming Rule”—which would set the size of a congressional district at the population of the least populous state (in recent history, Wyoming). There is an intuitive fairness to this — the Constitution guarantees at least one representative to each state, so this sets the House district size at the size that the smallest state could “earn” in a proportional system. This would lead to about 165 new seats.

And what does this have to do with abolishing the Electoral College? Well, since the Electoral College’s electors are apportioned based on the total number of House and Senate members, an expansion of the House would increase the number of electors in the Electoral College, and that increase would be tied to population. Today, roughly 19% of Electoral College seats are tied to the 100 Senate seats. If the House were expanded using the “Wyoming Rule” to 600 members, the electors that were tied to non-proportional representation, would be 14%. If the House were doubled in size, that figure would fall to 9%.

Expanding the House would dilute the distorting effect that Senate-seat-linked electors have on Electoral College outcomes, making it far more likely that the outcome of the popular vote and of the Electoral College are identical.

And who knows? When there is no longer a seesawing political advantage attached to preserving the Electoral College, maybe Americans will finally agree to just get rid of it.

Join the discussion

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