Friday, November 25, 2016
We’ve just witnessed the fourth election in American history where a president was elected by the Electoral College while losing the popular vote. A mechanism created in the earliest days of our country, where distances were vast (votes were hard to count and recount) and community leaders deeply respected. It was a reflection of a deeply rural America, noting that in 1790, 95% of the country was rural agricultural. That was the time when our current governmental structures were being formulated. Thomas Jefferson, a farmer himself as well as the principal architect of the constitution, was highly suspicious of cities, fearing that growing urban clusters could someday overwhelm sparsely populated farming communities.
Debates raged, but in the end the Connecticut (some call it the New Jersey) Compromise made sure that the sparsely populated farming states would have the same clout as those more heavily-populated trading/manufacturing states with large cities and towns. At least in the US Senate, the body charged with approving senior presidential appointments and treaties, where two Senators were allotted to each state. Today, Montana, with about a million people, has the same number of Senators as California, with thirty eight million. The House, where districts were to be drawn by the states themselves, was based on population and charged with initiating any appropriations bills… the power of the purse.
While the Constitution continues to provide rural structures for Congress, we have become an essentially urban nation, like most of the developed world. The nation moved passed the 50% rural stage way back in the 1920s and “urban” dwellers passed 80% in 2010. Our founding fathers wanted to make sure dem city-slickers never ran America.
“And they made sure the compromise stuck. Today, equal state representation in the Senate is the only provision in the Constitution that cannot be amended. But even as a deliberately undemocratic body, the Senate has slipped further out of alignment with the American population over time.
“The Senate hasn’t simply favored sparsely populated states; politicians in Washington created sparsely populated states to leverage the Senate’s skewed power… ‘When we talk about small-state bias, all of that was an intentional policy choice,’ said Jowei Chen, a political scientist at the University of Michigan. Republicans in Congress passed the 1862 Homestead Act, offering free land to settlers who would move to territories that would eventually become states — creating more Senate seats and Electoral College votes for a Republican Party eager to keep government control away from Southern Democrats. They even managed to divide the Dakota Territory into two states, worth twice the political power.
“As the Plains later depopulated and American cities, then suburbs, swelled, the Senate became even more unrepresentative.
“Jeffersonian suspicion of big cities also appears in the sites of state capitals: Albany and not New York; Jefferson City and not St. Louis; Springfield and not Chicago. Political scientists at the University of California, Davis, have found that most state capitals were located near what was then the population centroid of each state — typically closer to the geographical center of the state, and not the place where the most people already lived, breaking with how much of the world sited its capitals.
“The state legislatures there also grew significantly less representative as America urbanized. In 1961, when lawyers in Tennessee brought what would be a seminal case before the Supreme Court challenging the practice, the state legislature had not reapportioned its districts to reflect population change in 60 years. Maryland was still using districts drawn in 1867.
“Even states that had constitutions requiring equal population districts were ignoring them. Florida, Georgia and New Mexico gave small counties 100 times the voting power of the most populous ones. In California, Amador County (population 14,294) had the same representation in the state’s Senate as Los Angeles County (population 6,038,771).” Emily Badger writing for the November 20th New York Times.
Even with a massive realignment in demographics expected in the 2020 Census (the basis for redistricting), it would seem that nothing short of a revolution – or at least tearing down our entire government and rebuilding it – is going to lessen the rural bias of our system of government. Even with the immutable provision of the constitution, the rest of that document remains the most difficult to amend in the democratic world. Here is some more wisdom from those skeptical founding fathers:
“The Electoral College is just one example of how an increasingly urban country has inherited the political structures of a rural past. Today, states containing just 17 percent of the American population, a historic low, can theoretically elect a Senate majority, Dr. Lee said. The bias also shapes the House of Representatives.
“It exists, as a result, in the formulas that determine where highway funds are spent or who gets Homeland Security dollars. It exists in state capitols, where bills preferred by urban delegations have been much more likely to be rejected.
“Today, the influence of rural voters also evokes deeply rooted ideals about who should have power in America. Jefferson and James Madison argued that the strength of the nation would always derive from its agrarian soil.
“‘They had this vision of what they called the ‘yeoman farmer’: this independent, free-standing person who owed nothing to anybody, who didn’t receive any payments from the government, who didn’t live by a wage, but who could support himself and his family on a farm growing everything they needed — and that these were the people who were going to be the backbone of democracy,’ said Gerald Gamm, a political scientist at the University of Rochester, describing what could be the forefathers of the rural voters who tilted this year’s election…
“By the mid-20th century, no state approximated majority rule. America at the time, Dr. Ansolabehere and James M. Snyder Jr. wrote in their book ‘The End of Inequality,’ had some of the most unequal representation in the world. A series of Supreme Court cases beginning with that Tennessee complaint upended this system and established the standard that equal representation means ‘one person, one vote.’ Not one town, one vote. Or one county, one senator. Only the United States Senate, protected by the Constitution, remained unchanged.
“Still, the House retains a rural bias. Republican voters are more efficiently distributed across the country than Democrats, who are concentrated in cities. That means that even when Democrats win 50 percent of voters nationwide, they invariably hold fewer than 50 percent of House seats, regardless of partisan gerrymandering.
“The Electoral College then allocates votes according to a state’s congressional delegation: Wyoming (with one House representative and two senators) gets three votes; California (53 representatives and two senators) gets 55. Those two senators effectively give Wyoming three times more power in the Electoral College than its population would suggest. Apply the same math to California and it would have 159 Electoral College votes. And the entire state of Wyoming already has fewer residents than the average California congressional district.
“In Washington, these imbalances directly influence who gets what, through small-state minimums (no state can receive below a certain share of education funding) and through formulas that privilege rural states (early road spending was doled out in part by land area and not road use).” NY Times.
There are almost no “Yeoman Farmers” left, but their system of government remains. While Europe has distributed is modern representational structures to focus on political units based on large urban areas, the United States is hopelessly mired in a “rural values first” political system. So as we seek to heal the wounds of political rancor that have marked the recent presidential election, hopes for finding that middle ground, solid traditional American compromise, appear increasingly dim… exacerbated by a political system predicated on unequal voting power… even as a minority party, the GOP, continues to practice voter suppression, from voter IDs, gerrymandering, to simply making sure the polling stations are located mainly in neighborhoods where they dominate.
I’m Peter Dekom, and the more Americans understand their own political system, the better the better they will be prepared to deal with it.