How to make American democracy more democratic
I’ve got a better idea than abolishing the electoral college
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.
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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.
The author is correct that his proposals would make the US even more democratic. Over time, the US has devolved to become more and more democratic. It was founded as a republic. The founders recognized the dangers of democracy and abhorred them. The US does not need to become more democratic, but needs to recall that it functioned better as a republic and would function better in the future as a republic. As the US is beginning to see, more democracy results in the gradual strangling of liberty and equality by the runners and vines of self-motivated special interests.
Exactly. Even more importantly, too much power has shifted from the states to the Federal government. As Congress and the President become more powerful the battle for control gets more intense, as we saw yesterday. We are the United STATES of America, and the states need to take back more power. First, return the choice of Senators to the state governments. They are meant to represent state interests – we already have the House to represent the populace. Second, abolish the various agencies and departments that are not explicitly mentioned in the Constitution. These merely concentrate power over what should be local issues (such as education, housing, labor, etc) in Washington. Third, cut back Presidential power by eliminating Executive Actions and Signing statements; cutting departments will also reduce presidential power.
Absent these types of changes we are slouching towards oligarchy.
Agree with much of what you say. It I don’t think states should be allowed to have different rules for the presidential election. For federal elections the rules must be the same nation wide. For state elections each state may do whatever they want as long as it is legal and legal means only citizens vote.
As the Greeks discovered and US founders observed, there can be too many cooks in Democracy. The House is quite large as it is. More representatives leads to more opportunity to not decide anything.
The United States was founded as a Republic with representative democracy. Not as a nation of immigrants, as some suppose, but as a nation of citizens, all equal before the law. The Constitution, the basis of that law, is a finely balanced document that gives very limited enumerated powers to the Federal Government, and reserves everything else to the States or the People. Its intended purpose is to protect the People from the Government.
The checks and balances contained in it were born of intense compromise, and wisdom that is sadly lacking today. This has been forgotten. Over time the unconstitutional centralization of power in Washington, the taking power from the states, the exponential increase in federal laws, and regulations, the massive amounts of illegal immigrants, some who manage to vote, the unwarranted legal legislating by the Supreme Court, having Senators directly elected, and the lazy and sloppy delegation of authority to the federal bureaucracy, and the usurpation of legislative authority by Presidents, of all parties, have all contributed to the lessening of the democracy of the Republic.
While a case might be made for increasing the size of the House of Representatives, it will do nothing to make the US more democratic. Most importantly, it is a 100% non-starter until Congress actually proves itself worthy of having more members, is paid less, if anything at all, has no corruption, more men and women of character, and, most importantly, has term limits. I don’t foresee this ever happening in my lifetime. Having more Representatives will do nothing to change how the electoral college works.
The more urgent issue that is that we now have multiple de facto “systems” of law in the US, and therefore no true equality before the law. If you are rich, well-connected, or have the right politics and beliefs, the law can be broken with absolute impunity. If you are poor, do not have powerful connection, or have the wrong politics or beliefs, there is a different version of the law for you, and God help you. The primary current example of this, is the lack of integrity and transparency in our elections at all levels.
This proposal shows a complete lack of awareness of what is happening on the ground in the US. People are angry and divided, and yet politicians and pundits alike all seek to stoke that anger for their own political purposes. Instead, they seek to politicize all aspects of our lives, if we let them.
The wind has been sown, and now we reap the whirlwind. This will get much worse before it gets even slightly better.
“America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.” ~ Abraham Lincoln
“…if the citizens neglect their Duty and place unprincipled men in office, the government will soon be corrupted; laws will be made, not for the public good so much as for selfish or local purposes; corrupt or incompetent men will be appointed to execute the Laws; the public revenues will be squandered on unworthy men; and the rights of the citizen will be violated or disregarded.” ~ Noah Webster
Mr Webster was writing about the current UK government was he? Sounds uncannily like he might have been.
It’s amazing how these quotes are more relevant now than ever before. And they apply across the political spectrum.
Term limits are an absolute must and eliminate the ability of former congressmen and military leaders to become lobbyists, especially representing foreign governments and foreign companies.
Creating more politicians by expanding the House as proposed, far from being more democratic, would be counter productive. The ever-growing size of the political class in Britain is evidence of this.
The author mistakenly refers to the United States as a democracy. It is not. It is constitutionally founded as a federation of states. And constitutionally the federal government has LIMITED enumerated powers. The divisions in our country can be traced to the unconstitutional usurpation of power by the federal government. It is not capable of handling the powers it has wrestled from the states creating debt, corruption and incompetence. Eliminating the electoral college, which requires a Constitutional Amendment, would not eliminate these problems. Any attempt to change to a national majority vote whether by amendment or other means will only fuel more division.
This article shows complete ignorance of the compromises necessary to maintain a federal system. You might as well complain that in the Westminster system the Prime Minister isn’t elected on the popular vote but selected by an “electoral college” aka the House of Commons. In a federal system uniting large and small, urban and rural states, an electoral college is a practical necessary, and it neither can, nor should, be abolished.
To dismiss out of hand an electoral college for being undemocratic is unwarranted. In the UK we elect MPs who make up an electoral college, Parliament, which forms the basis of a Government. After the Brexit vote the complaint of the SNP was that Brexit should not be imposed when two of the home nations voted for it and two against i.e. they were arguing for an electoral college where a majority of nations had to support such a constitutional change. It seems to me that support or condemnation for the idea of an electoral collge is based soley on whether it advances your particular brand of politics.
While Donald Trump has lost the White House, Congress, and, after the January 5 run-off elections in Georgia, the Senate too,
The Senate is part of Congress, which is a bicameral body.
How do you fix a problem like American democracy?
Why is the presumption that it’s the system in need of change? Systems don’t act, people act, and the people in elected office has worked hard to treat citizens as subjects and to act is we work for them.
What problems exist have a great deal to do with expanding power of the federal govt, which this proposal would increase upon. Congress was not originally envisioned as a full-time job, nor was it meant to be permanent. The federal govt’s powers were constitutionally limited, with more responsibility at the state and local levels – where the governed were far closer to the govt – and members of Congress served for brief periods before returning to their regular lives and letting new blood take over.
The federal budget is north of four trillion per year and at least one party is convinced that’s nowhere near enough. Not that the other party is averse to national power; it just differs on where it would spend and periodically gives lip service to “limited govt.” Eliminating the EC subjects a big chunk of the country to the whims of places it sees as foreign. It’s like Wyoming and California are synonymous. They’re not.
Agreed, brother. The expansion of the Administrative State surely informs how we think the tensions in our politics. Should we cede more authority to the central authorities, or has the purview of the central authorities farther than it should. Jefferson’s notion that the government that governs least ends up governing best would amount to a endorsement of a less expansive Administrative State, a ruling clique that tells us how to organize our lives in increasingly granular detail.
“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.”
I disagree that it’s “far” more likely, at least with anything close to current state-by-state partisan voting patterns.
A large portion of the reason for the disparity between Electoral College results and raw popular vote totals – particularly apparent in 2016 and 2020 – is the Democratic presidential candidate winning the 1st and 4th largest population states (California and New York) by much wider margins than the Republican candidate wins the 2nd and 3rd largest population states (Texas and Florida). In 2020, Biden’s raw popular vote total in those 4 states exceed Trump’s by about 6 million, even though each candidate won the electoral votes from 2 of those states. In 2016 – with the same electoral vote result – Clinton’s raw popular vote total in those 4 states exceeded Trump’s by just over 5 million.
Looking at it more broadly, Trump in 2016 won the electoral votes of 7 of the 10 states with the highest electoral vote totals (i.e., of the 10 largest states by population – measuring population as of the 2010 decennial census). Clinton won California, New York, and Illinois, each by no less than a 17 point margin. Trump won the remaining 7, with no margin greater than 9 points in any of those states. He won 2 of those states (Pennsylvania and Michigan) by less than 1 point and another one (Florida) by slightly over 1 point.
Due to that vote distribution, the overall totals for those 10 largest population states in the 2016 Presidential election were Trump trailing in the raw popular vote total by 5.1 million but winning 150 electoral votes vs. 104 electoral votes for Clinton from those states.
I haven’t worked through the full math of how Mr. Baer’s proposed change to the size of the U.S. House of Representatives would have changed the 2016 and 2020 elections. (If he has done so, he doesn’t share the results with us here.)
He does seem to be relying heavily on a misconception, however, that it’s Republican presidential candidates disproportionately winning in lots of small population states that drives the recently observed discrepancy between the raw popular vote total and Electoral College map. He – like some other commentators – appears to forget the existence of New Mexico, New Hampshire, Hawaii, Rhode Island, Delaware, and Vermont. (These smaller states have recently been reliable supporters of the Democratic party candidate in presidential elections.) It’s actually, however, the *relative margin* of victory in the very largest states that’s the key factor in the divergence of raw popular vote totals compared to the Electoral College.
Sounds slightly intriguing on the face of it, but tell me, who foots the bill? In the end, more of our money goes to Washington, and special interest groups will simply hire more lobbyists to promote their causes to the expanded House. Taxpayer money will still be spent at appalling levels on things that approach absurdity, and on supporting more politicians. Meanwhile the people at home would continue to choke on restrictions and regulations that benefit only a few, and deal with failing infrastructure. And the money wheel would churn on like a runaway train.
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