Thursday, October 11, 2018

A Modest Proposal

There has been a lot of noise lately about unequal representation in Congress lately. The basic thrust of it is that the Senate has 30% of the Senators representing 70% of the population, and that it's ridiculous that that a single Representative from Wyoming represents 585,501 people1, while California, with its population of 39,250,017 and 53 Representatives, has each representative acting on behalf of 738,581 residents. These are valid concerns, but the solutions proposed by many are just too simplistic: eliminate the Electoral College, eliminate the Senate, remove the cap on the number of Representatives. None of these ideas will work in the way they are intended.

So let's take a look at a proposal to make it work in the 21st century. First, the House of Representatives.

Current law has the number of Representatives capped at 435. This makes sense, actually; if it was purely population based and the number of residents per Representative outlined in the Constitution (one Representative for every 30,000 residents) had not been updated, then we would currently have 10,893 Representatives. Obviously, this is unworkable, but there is a way to address this: remove state boundaries from consideration entirely. The problem with having Congressional districts drawn within state boundaries is that it does not take into account population density. If, instead of districts within each state, we simply had 450 Congressional districts nationwide, then we would have 450 Representatives accountable to about 725,000 residents each2. This ratio can be reapportioned every decennial census to keep the total number of Representatives at 450.

Districts would be drawn by an independent Federal commission consisting of two representatives of each party that has representation in Congress, as well as the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court to serve as final arbiter of disputes and tiebreaker.

Because the House is "the People's House," this would actually provide closer alignment between Representatives and their constituents due to state-specific matters being taken out of their purview by virtue of them being national Representatives (more on this division of responsibility between the Houses of Congress in a bit).

Now, let's examine the Senate.

Currently we have two Senators from each state. This proposal does not change that, but it does limit the Senate to matters pertaining to states themselves, as opposed to individual liberties. What this would mean is that, in addition to the House being the source for all revenue-generating bills, it would also be responsible for crafting legislation dealing with taxation (specifically, the personal income tax), education policy (with regard to setting Federal standards, etc.), crime at the individual level (kidnapping, etc.), and so on. The Senate, on the other hand, would be responsible for matters dealing with the states as political, geographic, and economic entities, as well as legislation concerned with international affairs, the military, national travel (the FAA, NHTSA, etc.) and interstate commerce.

Finally, let's take a look at the Electoral College, and consider what would happen if it is abolished (as some are calling for). This would mean the President is elected purely by the popular vote. Because population is centered in the cities and along the coasts, and considering that cities tend to be home to more Democrats than Republicans, that would mean that the chances of ever having another Republican president are pretty slim3. However, the Electoral College as it stands now gives undue weight to rural areas, shutting cities out of the process, and opening up the potential for a President to be elected who, technically, lost the election4.

What we need is to modify how the Electoral College works. What I propose is the following:

  • Eliminate electors entirely. The duty of casting an Electoral College vote should fall to our elected representatives.
  • Eliminate "faithless electors." We can do this by enacting legislation that requires electors to vote according to the popular vote in their district. The idea that an elector could simply ignore the popular vote and cast a ballot according to his or her whims is, quite frankly, anathema and runs counter to the ideals upon which this country was founded. Under this scenario, Senator John Smith would have to cast his Electoral College vote for the candidate that won the popular vote in his state, and Representative Carol Jones would cast her EC ballot for the candidate that won the popular vote in her district -- even if that district crosses state lines.
  • Eliminate "winner take all." Currently there are two states -- Maine and Nebraska -- that split the electoral vote according to Congressional district. All other states will throw all their electors to the candidate with the plurality of the vote. Under this new proposal, each candidate would receive one Electoral College vote for each Congressional district in which they win the popular vote, and two Electoral College votes for each state in which they win the statewide popular vote (see the proposal for modifying how Congressional districts are drawn above).

None of this even touches on campaign finance, which is another topic for another day.

I gotta lie down.

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1Population numbers are estimates from July 1, 2016, retrieved from "Annual Estimates of the Resident Population for the United States, Regions, States, and Puerto Rico: April 1, 2010 to July 1, 2016" at

2All population counts in this section are based off of 2018 estimates from the Census Bureau.

3Some would say that this is actually the desired state of affairs. Given the current Republican Party, I would agree. However, if the GOP ever comes to its senses and tries to elect another Eisenhower, would that really be a terrible thing?

4In our history we have had five Presidents -- two in the last twenty years -- who have won the election despite losing the popular vote:

  • 1824 - John Quincy Adams: Andrew Jackson, 152,901; Adams, 114,023; Henry Clay, 47,217; William H. Crawford, 46,979. Adams won with a deficit of 38,878 votes, or 10.77%. A big reason for vote totals being so low is that, at the time, the right to vote was extended to white male property owners only.
  • 1876 - Rutherford B. Hayes: Samuel J. Tilden, 4,288,546; Hayes, 4,034,311. Hayes won with a deficit of 254,235 votes, or 3.05%. This election is also interesting in that it is the only time in our history to date that the loser of the Electoral College vote won a majority of the votes, not just a plurality. Vote totals were higher due to African-American participation in elections after passage of the 15th Amendment.
  • 1888 - Benjamin Harrison: Grover Cleveland, 5,534,488; Harrison, 5,443,892; Clinton B. Fisk, 249,819; Alson Streeter, 146,602; Other, 8,519. Harrison won with a deficit of 90,596 votes, or 0.80%.
  • 2000 - George W. Bush: Al Gore, 50,999,897; George W. Bush, 50,456,002; Ralph Nader, 2,882,955; Pat Buchanan, 448,895; Harry Browne, 384,431; Howard Phillips, 98,020; John Hagelin, 83714; Other, 51,186. Bush won with a deficit of 543,895 votes, or 0.52%.
  • 2016 - Donald Trump: Hillary Clinton, 65,853,514; Donald Trump, 62,984,828; Gary Johnson, 4,489,341; Jill Stein, 1,457,218; Evan McMullin, 731,991; Darrell Castle, 203,090; Bernie Sanders, 111,850; Gloria LaRiva, 74,401; John Kasich, 2,684; Ron Paul, 124; Colin Powell, 25. Trump won with a deficit of 2,868,686 votes, or 2.11%.

A Path Forward

The Democratic primaries are heating up, and I am already seeing purity tests of various stripes filtering across the intertubes. Bernie ...