American Democracy 2.0

We Americans dote on our nation’s history, sometimes to excess. We tend to deify the framers of our Constitution, who were indisputably brilliant political philosophers, but human and bound by their time and cultural heritage. And we are prone to regard the document itself as holy writ, though like the Bible, we tend to quote from it selectively to suit our biases, and forget the rest.

Hence the plainly qualified right to bear arms of the Second Amendment is seized upon as absolute, while the right to vote unequivocally ensured by the Fifteenth is reduced to a mere privilege that must be earned by submission to bureaucratic hazing and standing in long lines on a workday.

The U.S. Constitution is rightly regarded as the most complete and coherent framework for democracy in a republic ever written. But our collective idolatry about the Constitution has prevented us from improving it, and with it, the template of modern democracy.

The most recent Amendment to the Constitution was ratified in 1992, and established only the rather quotidian rule that a particular Congress may not grant itself a pay raise. The last attempt at substantive improvement to American democracy, the Equal Rights Amendment, which would have enshrined the seemingly inarguable principle of gender equality under law, was proposed in 1972 but came up three states short of ratification.

Leaving aside the category of purely policy-based changes that might be made to the Constitution — expressly limiting the right to bear arms, or eliminating the right to an abortion, to cite two politically intractable examples — there remain certain structural defects in our current democratic framework that could be corrected by bi-partisan thought and effort, even without Constitutional amendment.

The recent mid-term elections and the impending 2020 census serve to remind us of one such defect: the unnecessarily small number of seats in the House of Representatives, which distorts legislative power in favor of less-populous states.

Article I of the Constitution stipulates that House seats are to be apportioned among the states “according to their respective Numbers [of population],”and sets a ratio of not greater than one representative for every 30,000 persons, which gives us an idea of what the founders thought was an appropriate level of representation. The decennial census is conducted primarily to meet this constitutional requirement. After the first US census in 1790 counted 3.9 million people in the then much geographically smaller US, the number of representatives in the House stood at a cozy, intimate 105, about the size of your average millennial’s wedding.

Over the years, Congress used its constitutional authority to expand the size of the House to keep up with the growing US population, but since the Permanent Reapportionment Act of 1929, engineered by Republicans who feared the ballooning of the urban voting base, the number of House representatives has been frozen at 435, and that fixed number of seats has been allocated among the states in what is, of mathematical necessity given the growing disparity between the most and least populous states, an increasingly undemocratic pattern.

In 1790, the average size of a Congressional district was just shy of 40,000 persons; in 1929, when the number of House seats was fixed at 435, the average district numbered around 280,000, and today stands at almost 750,000, a number that would leave the Founders gobsmacked. Allocating an arbitrarily limited number of seats among states of wildly disparate populations results in a situation where, for instance, Montana and Wyoming each have one representative even though Montana’s population is twice that of Wyoming’s, while Rhode Island, with only a slightly larger population than Montana’s, gets two seats.

One long-proposed solution to this problem is the so-called “Wyoming Rule,” which would increase the number of representatives in the House to the level where the ratio of representative to population would equal that of the least-populous unit – i.e., Wyoming. This would result in a ratio of one representative per every 520,000 or so persons and, given the current size of the US population, a House composed of 545 representatives, compared to the current 435. More importantly, the larger states would gain representatives to bring their number more in line with their populations. California would gain 13 seats, Texas 9 seats, New York 7, Florida 6, while places like Alaska, the Dakotas, and West Virginia would gain none. No state would lose seats, and the House would be more representative of the population at large, as our hallowed founders intended as a counterbalance to the deliberately un-democratic Senate, where two seats are given to each state irrespective of population.

There are other legitimate methodologies for increasing the size of the House, one recently proposed by the New York Times, but they all share the goal of aligning the institution more closely with the hopefully inarguable principle of making voting power proportionate with population.

The objections? Some say a larger House would be even more unwieldy than it already is, but it’s just as plausible that more equably apportioned districts would reduce the rabid partisanship that currently afflicts us. No, the real objection is unchanged since 1929 — that the political oxen of Republicans whose base tends to reside in less-populous states would get at least mildly gored. But this isn’t a uniform outcome, as the cases of Texas and Florida illustrate, and the result would be an indisputably more democratic House.

Two implications of proposals for a larger House are worth noting: first, that it could be accomplished without the need for a laborious and likely doomed Constitutional amendment process, since reapportionment lies squarely within the legislative purview of Congress; and second, that enlargement of the House would mitigate the current absurdity of the role of the Electoral College in presidential elections. Given that the College is populated with the same number of votes, allocated among the states in the same way, as representatives to the House, enlarging the House would also serve to bring the College into closer alignment with the popular vote without the need for an amendment to the Constitution to eliminate it altogether, or the proposed interstate compact that would effectively override it.

There are many issues on which Americans may never agree with anything resembling unanimity, but as long as we claim to be a representative democracy, we should all want our House of Representatives, and the Electoral College as long as we must live with it, to be composed as democratically a possible. That’s not now the case, but a relatively easy structural improvement is readily at hand.

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