democracy is a work in progress
Electoral College2022-01-20T14:14:29-05:00

Electoral College, Other Structures Distort Representation

As noted in our Growth of Government storyline, the founding fathers wrote the Constitution to form “a more perfect union” — not an unattainable perfect one. In fact, for a democratic nation built on a document that starts off, “We the People”, the US was, originally, not very good at giving democractic rights to the vast majority of its people or setting up democratic governance structures that could stand the test of time and change.

As originally conceived, few of the nation’s governance structures were designed to hew to purely democratic principles, even if they were vast improvements over the far-off monarchy and parliament that they replaced. The presidency was to be voted on by eligible voters but actually decided by the Electoral College, a collection of individuals from each state who could overturn the popular will if they so chose. The Supreme Court was designed to weigh the law, not popular opinion. The Senate, too, with its equal representation among states and its election, originally, by state legislatures rather than voters, was intended as a counterbalance to the single most democratic part of the federal government, the House of Representatives. The Founders, who were mostly men of wealth and property, feared rule by the majority as much as they feared a tyrannical executive.

Since 1787, though, the US has made vast strides in democratization. Voting rights have expanded considerably since the first elections were held and under the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause, all citizens and all citizens’ votes must be treated equally under the law. In two rulings nearly 100 years later, the Supreme Court found that state legislatures must have voting districts of equal-size populations (in Reynolds v. Sims) and that federal congressional districts must also be roughly equal in size (in Wesbury v. Sanders). With these decisions, the Court enshrined the principle of “one person, one vote” into legal precedent. Senators are now chosen by popular vote in their state rather than by state legislatures, and electors to the Electoral College are expected — and in most cases, legally required — to vote as their state’s population did.

Nonetheless, undemocratic elements of the original system remain, and some have been exacerbated by population imbalances that did not exist at the country’s founding. The way that the electoral system currently operates does still privilege some citizens’ votes over others.

Electoral College’s ‘Winner-Take-All’ Process

Under the Electoral College system, which in most states assigns electoral votes on a winner-take-all basis, the outcome of an election can undermine the popular will. Put simply, even when a majority or plurality of voters nationwide cast their votes for one candidate, the Electoral College can award the presidency to another candidate. Two of the last three presidents — George W. Bush and Donald Trump — were elected to their first term in office with fewer popular votes nationwide than their opponent because they won a majority of Electoral College votes.

To illustrate how this can happen, consider the 2016 election. Candidate Hillary Clinton’s margin of victory in Minnesota was just 45,000 votes (or 1.5 percentage points), and Trump’s victory margin in Michigan was less than 10,000 (0.3 percentage points). However, Clinton got 100% of Minnesota’s 10 Electoral College votes, and Trump won 100% of Michigan’s 16 Electoral College votes. Not only does the winner-take-all allocation of electors effectively discard the choices of Republican voters in Minnesota and Democratic voters in Michigan, it also disregards the national popular will. Narrow margins in several states with large numbers of electors — Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan — tipped the election in Trump’s direction despite his losing the national popular vote.

Presidential candidates must persuade not a majority of American voters, but a majority of voters in only a few battleground states where the outcome of the Electoral College is decided. During the 2016 presidential race, two-thirds (273 of 399) of the general-election campaign events took place in just six states (Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia, and Michigan). In 2020, the imbalance worsened: two-thirds of campaign events (142 of 212) took place in just five states (Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan).

The Electoral College thus denies the other states (and the District of Columbia) candidate attention. It is unlikely that fracking in western Pennsylvania, for example, would have received so much attention in the 2020 campaign had Pennsylvania not been so heavily contested. Issues affecting blue Oregon or red Kentucky, though, were not a focus of the campaign.

Representation in Congress

Representation in the US House of Representatives is skewed in two ways: first, in terms of the impossibly large number of people each representative is expected to represent; and second, in an imbalance of representation across the states.

High Representative to Population Ratio

The first US Congress in 1790 had 65 House members, each of whom represented, on average, slightly more than 57,000 people. Through 1910, the number of people per representative increased slowly to about 200,000 as the population grew. The number of congresspeople in the US House of Representatives was informally capped at 435 in 1910 and cemented in place with the Reapportionment Act of 1929. As a result, over time the number of voters each congressperson represents has climbed dramatically.

Today, each member of the House is elected in a congressional district that averages slightly more than 747,000 people, a figure that dwarfs most other democracies’ national legislatures. How effectively officials can represent so many people is a question often raised.

Unbalanced Representation
In the House of Representatives

The distribution of representation in the House is skewed by imbalances in population across states and political districts. For example, Montana and Wyoming each have one representative, but Montana’s population — just under a million in 2010 — is nearly twice the size of Wyoming’s. Rhode Island, which in 2010 had just 60,000 more residents than Montana, nevertheless has two representatives. Another way to express this is to look at the populations of each state and the number of residents per representative in each state:

State Population
(in 2010)
Number of
Residents per
Montana 989,415 1 989,415
Wyoming 563,626 1 563,626
Rhode Island 1,052,567 2 526,466

Because the number of representatives also influences the number of Electoral College votes — which are determined by a state’s number of representatives in Congress, including both House and Senate — this imbalance can also have a small impact on presidential elections as well, especially close ones.

In the Senate

Representation in the Senate is unequal by design: the Senate was intended to provide each state with equal representation, regardless of population. In fact, it was the framers’ way of ensuring “inclusion” of the less-populated states in federal policymaking. However, discussion around fair and equal representation sometimes includes the Senate.

Allocating two senators to each state gives the residents of less-populated states more power to influence legislation and governance than the residents of more populated states — allowing the Senate to serve as a counter to the House of Representatives, which allocates seats based on population.

According to the 1790 Census, Virginia was the largest state in the thirteen original colonies with about 750,000 people. The smallest state was Delaware, with about 60,000 people. Thus, a resident of Delaware had roughly 12 times as much say in the Senate as a resident of Virginia. That gap is significantly larger today: the largest state, California, has 39.5 million people, or 68 times more people than the smallest state, Wyoming, which has a population of just 578,000. In other words, the Senate is far more unequal today than it was at the country’s founding.

The inequality of representation in the Senate has another effect: it discounts the votes of urban voters to the benefit of rural voters. According to an analysis by FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver, there are roughly equal numbers of people in urban, suburban, exurban, and rural areas — each contains about a quarter of the US population. However, the composition of the Senate gives rural voters three times the representation of urban voters (suburban and exurban voters are not unequally represented). This is because there are many small, disproportionately rural states that have the same representation as larger, more densely-populated states.

Notably, there is a unique barrier to changing the structure of the Senate — the Constitution plainly states that “no State, without its Consent, shall be deprived of its equal Suffrage in the Senate.” And given the intent of the founders, there is good reason to overlook this imbalance in representation. However, a healthy democracy should, at frequent intervals, review its structures and institutions to ensure they remain appropriate for the times.

Related Problems: Money in Politics, Income and Wealth Inequality

Contributors: George LinzerMichael Deal, Kyle Mullins

Published: December 5, 2019

Last Updated: January 11, 2022

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