Americans may not agree about much these days, but we all accept two basic tenets that underlie our democracy: majority rule and everyone’s vote counts equally. Without these two principles, it is hard to imagine how genuine democracy can exist. Yet incredibly, neither of these basic tenets of democracy is being practiced in the United States of America today, once the beacon of democracy for all the world to emulate.
Start with the bedrock principle that majority rules. We understand that when the votes are all counted, the winner is the person who won the most votes. We also understand that when Congress votes on a piece of legislation, the vote is decided by the majority of votes cast. What we miss in these concepts, however, is who constitutes the majority? Most elections are decided by less than half of the electorate, since voter participation is that low. In the average mid-term election, the electorate who shows up is just 30 percent of the total voting population. For special elections, that can drop to as little as 10 percent. This means that a small minority of the electorate, as little as 6 percent in a special election, chooses the winner, not the 50 percent plus one that a functioning democracy expects.
Turns out, lower voter participation helps Republicans, not Democrats. Republicans, being older and wealthier, tend to vote more often, magnifying the impact of their votes. If the 50 percent of the electorate who cast ballots include a majority of Republicans, they win, even though they are often a minority of the eligible voters. Once Republicans figured out that they win when fewer people show up to vote, they have made it a conscious policy to suppress the vote whenever they can, especially in urban areas where Democrats tend to dominate. They do this in many sundry ways, but among the most common tactics are:
- Impose voter ID requirements that discriminate against the poor and the progressive. Make everyone get a driver’s license to vote, even if they don’t drive. And make sure they must pay for it. Allow hunting licenses as voter ID, since gun owners tend to vote Republican, but not university student identification, since college students tend to vote Democratic.
- Eliminate polling places in Democratic areas, forcing these voters to wait in long lines, while Republican rural areas are given ample polling places with no waiting lines.
- Restrict early voting, mail-in ballots and other ways to make it easier for busy working people to vote. Nix any idea of moving election day to a weekend, as the rest of the world does, or declaring it a national holiday (the real Patriot’s Day?), giving everyone time to vote.
- Purge the voter rolls of anyone who doesn’t vote in every election, or who has a foreign-sounding last name, or the same name as a felon living in a different state, or who has ever registered to vote in another state, no matter how long ago that was.
A second reason Americans do not practice true majority rule is structural, buried deep in the U.S. Constitution. At our founding in 1787, the electorate was restricted to white males who owned property. They were the only eligible voters for the first 75 years of our nation. Blacks did not get the right to vote until after the Civil War and it took women 130 years to obtain suffrage. This long history of minority rule continues to affect voting today, as blacks and women continue to be key targets of voter suppression, just as they were prevented from voting at the birth of our nation.
Recent efforts to suppress voting have had the desired effect in Republican states where these practices have the force of law. Between 2014 and 2016, over 16 million voters were purged from the voting rolls and millions of others gave up trying to vote, due to the obstacles placed in their path. Considering that Trump won the Presidency based on the electoral votes of three mid-western states that chose him by a mere 70,000 votes, the millions of voters who did not participate in the 2016 election represent the disenfranchised silent majority. After he won, Trump spoke of a rigged election, but in typical Trumpian double-speak, he denied that he was the beneficiary of the rigging, instead claiming it helped Hillary win the popular vote. Truth is, the popular vote was the real vote. Trump won the rigged Electoral College vote, as I will shortly explain.
The other structural issue embedded in our constitution that inhibits true democracy is the democratic notion that each person has one vote and each vote is counted equally. In order to get smaller states like Rhode Island and South Carolina to join the Union, the Constitution gave them an outsized role in our government – especially in the Senate, where each state gets two Senators, regardless of their population. Today, this structural inequality has been magnified by the highly unequal distribution of our population. Eighty percent of Americans live within 100 miles of the coast in the 12 states with the most people, and yet those 12 states get just 24 Senators, less than one-quarter of the total. Meanwhile, 13 states representing just 10 percent of the U.S. population get a total of 26 Senators, giving them more representation in the U.S. Senate than 80 percent of the population in coastal states.
Nowhere is this inequality more obvious than in my home state of California, where our two Senators represent 39 million residents while the 20 least populous states, with a combined population equal to California’s, get 40 Senators. Is it any wonder the U.S. Senate does not represent the interests of the American people? Senators from rural states with tiny populations dominate and only represent the interests of their constituents, a mere 10 percent of the electorate.
To counter an undemocratic institution like the Senate, our founders created the House of Representatives, supposedly the people’s house, where everyone would be represented equally by proportionate representation based on population. But even in this most democratic of our institutions, the principle that all votes count equally no longer applies. That’s because our Constitution requires that each state get at least one representative, no matter how small their population, while restricting the total size to 435 members. So, the six states with less than one million residents each get a Representative in the House, including Wyoming, which has barely half a million people. Meanwhile, in the most populous state, California, we get 53 House representatives for a population of 39 million.
If you look at the average number of voters that constitute each Representative’s constituency, you find that the single House Representative in small states like Wyoming, Vermont and Alaska represent between 500,000 and 700,000 voters, while in California, each House member represents 735,000. Once again, this gives outsize voting clout to small rural states. If California House Members each represented 500,000 voters, as the Representatives of Wyoming and Vermont do, we would require 78 House Representatives, not the 53 we currently have. That’s diluting our representation in Congress by nearly 50% compared to the smallest states.
It’s no wonder that most Americans express the view that the Federal Government in Washington, D.C. does not represent their interests. Unless you live in one of the small rural midwestern or southern states that control Congress, the Federal Government really doesn’t represent you in proportion to your share of the population. It’s no accident that the Republican leadership in Congress hails from Kentucky and Wisconsin. Neither state is even in the top half of the U.S. population.
To compound this undemocratic inequality, the Republicans who have seized control of most of the southern and midwestern states in the past three decades have gerrymandered House and state legislative districts to such an extent that they now win elections there with a minority of the votes. In a historic election for state legislature in Virginia in 2017, for example, Democrats won 55% of the total votes cast in the state and picked up 15 seats, but due to gerrymandering, Republicans retained control of the Assembly with 45% of the total votes cast. Similar outcomes have occurred in the House of Representatives, where Democrats routinely outvote Republicans nation-wide and yet Republicans continue to win a majority of the seats by gerrymandering the states they dominate.
This affects our presidential elections too, since the Electoral College rules that govern the winner are based on the same flawed inequity as the House of Representatives. We saw this in 2016, when Trump lost the popular vote by more than 3 million but won the Electoral College due to the outsized influence of the 20 least populous states, most of which went for Trump. Even though those 20 states combined have about the same population as California, they get 100 electoral votes to 55 for our state.
As Americans anticipate a potential blue wave of Trump resistance voters in 2018, Democrats should be careful not to count their chickens prior to hatch. Democrats have been known to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory before and Republicans have become masters of minority rule. It is entirely possible that a majority of Americans will vote for Democrats in November and Republicans will still control the House and the Senate, due to the undemocratic features of these two bedrock institutions at the heart of our supposed democracy combined with the Republicans’ ability to pick who gets to vote.