Monday, February 13, 2017

Small states' outsized political power (Part II-B: Measuring the efffects in the House and Electoral College)

This post continues examination of the reality of small states' outsized political power. (For historical context, see Part I.)

Part II-A examined these effects in the U.S. Senate. This post concludes by analyzing the House of Representatives and the Electoral College.

The House of Representatives

As discussed in the first part of this series, the size of the House of Representatives has remained at 435 since 1913. In the intervening century, the U.S. population has ballooned from 97M in 1913 to 316M, an increase of more than triple. The average number of people represented by each member of the House in 1913 was 223,000 compared to 737,000 people per seat today. But this is not the whole story, for several reasons.

First, each state receives one House seat no matter its population. As described above, the average House district contains almost three-quarters of a million people, but there is significant variation around this mean. Wyoming's at-large district includes just 586,000 people, while Montana's at-large member represents more than 1M. On the whole, the average people-per-seat figure does not differ significantly between large states and small ones (1.7 percent) or between urban states and rural ones (0.2 percent). But of the fifteen states with the fewest people per seat (average 662,808), nine are among the fifteen least-populous states. Conversely, among the fifteen states with the most people per seat (average 811,444), only five are among the most-populous states.

Second, House seats are only reapportioned once a decade, following the decennial census. But population change is constant, and within a decade significant change can occur. The United States has been urbanizing steadily since the Industrial Revolution, becoming a majority-urban country sometime by 1920. This trend has continued, with rural areas' share of the national population falling from 21.0 percent to 19.3 percent between the years of 2000 and 2010. Although practical concerns favor the current system of once-a-decade reapportionment, this rhythm preserves rural areas' relative political power (despite persistent urbanization) through five election cycles.

Third, the 2.2M incarcerated persons in this country are counted in the Census (usually) like any other residents. Less than 10 percent of this total represents federal prisoners, so any state-to-state differences in where these individuals are held are small. But as some researchers have found, there can be major differences within states because prisons tend to be located in rural areas. Critics argue that the presence of these "phantom constituents" wrongly shifts the center of gravity for funding decisions outward. Proponents argue that incarcerated people have needs like any others and resources should be allocated based on reality. Arguably the issues of resources and political representation are distinct, but the stalemate leads to stasis, and this phenomenon exists in a number of states large and small.

Finally, Republicans have proven especially adept at manipulating district boundaries to maximize their political power. In his book "Ratf**ked," David Daley describes the GOP's REDMAP strategy, which included massive influxes of campaign cash, late in the 2010 election cycle, into strategically chosen state-legislative races. If Daley is to be believed, this effort succeeded in flipping just enough seats to turn statehouses "red" in advance of decennial redistricting that locked in Republican advantage for a decade. Recent elections suggest Daley is not just blowing smoke: Democrats won more than 50 percent of House votes in 2012 yet secured only 46 percent of House seats. Further, Republican electoral wins in 2010, 2014, and 2016 yielded "bonus" seats to the victors. (Note: during the four decades of Democratic control of the House, Democrats often enjoyed bonus seats, as well.)

Two tactics for manipulating districts maps -- also known as "gerrymandering" -- involve rural districts. By "packing" Democratic-leaning urban areas into dense districts, one can ensure that a small number of seats are dominated by Democrats but a larger number of seats overall are captured by Republicans. Another approach, "cracking," siphons off significant numbers of these same Democratic-leaning voters into otherwise sprawling, rural districts. The result is districts that favor Republicans only slightly, making it possible for them to "run the table." Both techniques test the limits of the Voting Rights Act, and in recent years courts have struck down redistricting plans put forth by Republicans in Alabama, North Carolina, Virginia, and Wisconsin.

Thus, in a number of ways the outsized power of small states, and of the sparsely populated parts of states, reinforces and is reinforced by partisan politics.

The Electoral College

As described in the first part of this series, the Electoral College essentially combines the small-state-empowering distortions engineered by the Senate and House individually. A California senator represents almost 70 times as many people as her Wyoming colleague. A California member of the House has nearly twice as many constituents as does Wyoming's at-large member. And in the Electoral College, California has 55 votes (one for every 714,545 people) while Wyoming has three (one for every 195,000 people), a ratio of 3.6 to 1.

Another feature of the Electoral College are the "gimme" votes of the two parties. All but two states assign their electoral votes on a winner-take-all basis. Examining the states that have voted for the same party for president in each election since 2000, it emerges that Democrats can count on 192 electoral votes from 16 states (12 votes per state). (This discounts the three votes from the District of Columbia.) 

By comparison, Republicans "start" each presidential election with 179 electoral votes from 23 states (fewer than 8 votes per state). Democrats' safe votes reflect the stable preferences of 119M people compared to 102M people locked-in for the Republicans. While Democrats start the presidential election with 7 percent more electoral votes than Republicans, they do so by controlling states whose populations are 17 percent greater than those of Republican strongholds. 

According to some electors in the 2016 contest, this is a feature rather than a bug. "I feel like the Electoral College gives a very fair perspective, so that those who are in the rural areas are able to have an equal voice with those who are in the urban areas," said Oklahoma elector Lauree Elizabeth Marshall.

While the Republican nominee for president has only commanded a popular-vote majority in only one of the last seven presidential elections, Republicans have won the White House in three of these contests. As will be discussed in the next part of this series, this one-sided partisan advantage makes it less likely that these distortions will be reformed.

Next: Part III - Proposals for reform

1 comment:

Jenna said...

I am glad that you brought up the potential issues with including inmates in the census. I find myself conflicted about this issue. On one hand, I believe that all people should be counted when determining representation. As we have seen in the past, ignoring people (or classifying them as less than a full person) is not the right way to truly represent the American populace. However, on the other hand, I am not sure that inmates should be counted as living in the counties in which they are imprisoned given that many of these individuals are not from that county (or even that state). Therefore, I am not sure that the representative would actually be protecting the inmates best interest, particularly since none of these incarcerated individuals can actually vote for the representative. I wonder if it would be better for these individuals to be counted in the county in which they resided prior to their incarceration, though I acknowledge that this may prove to be quite difficult.