Political Reform

Should politicians be responsive or isolated and free to make their own decisions? The U.S.’s Founding Fathers weighed on this and structured Congress to get a little bit of both features. The House of Representatives is meant to be a highly responsive body, whereas the Senate is more insulated from the public. How does each chamber achieve that?

For the House, it’s two main factors: smaller districts, which allow for smaller voting populations and better connections, and shorter, 2-year terms, which allow for representatives to face reelection much more often. Contrast that with senators, who represent entire states and hold office for six years per term. The Founders also had senators appointed by state governments rather than directly elected by a state’s voters, but we have done away with that for better or worse.

There are flaws with each chamber, of course. No system is perfect. What are the biggest flaws with each?

Size of districts/number of representatives. The U.S. increased the number of representatives to account for population growth and new states throughout the 19th century but has not done so since 1911. The population of the country has more than tripled since then. Today, a House district on average has around 700,000 constituents. In 1911, that figure would have been roughly 211,000. There are quite a few consequences of this:
The increased size of districts means that there is more distance between politicians and their constituents. The chamber meant to be more responsive becomes less responsive as a result.
Elections for the House become bigger affairs. More voters mean larger advertising markets, which means more money, which means politicians spend more time with donors, large donors have more influence, and so on. Were the districts smaller, it could be easier for candidates with less money to make a splash, or for candidates to focus more on things besides fundraising.
Since every state must have at least 1 representative but the total number of representatives is capped, this distorts how big some districts are. Wyoming is the least populous state: 586,000 residents with 1 representative. Compare that to California’s 39m residents and 53 representatives, who have an average district of 735,000.

Redistricting/gerrymandering. Every 10 years, states redraw district lines based on the latest census. States that have grown relative to the U.S. population get more; states whose populations shrank or didn’t grow fast enough get fewer. For instance, in 2010, Texas got 4 new representatives, Florida 2, and Georgia, Arizona, South Carolina, Washington, Utah, and Nevada gained 1. Ten states, mostly in the Midwest and Northeast, lost representatives. Districts also get redrawn based on shifting populations even if states don’t get new representatives. The power for this ultimately lies with state legislatures. Think there are any possible motives for state legislatures to draw lines to favor one party over another? The Supreme Court has ruled against partisan gerrymandering at times but has never set a standard of when district lines go too far.

Skewed Senate. This is something that has been around since the start of the country, but it bears mentioning again. The ratio of California’s population to Wyoming’s is 66:1. Yet both states get 2 senators. The ratio in 1789 (I’m going by total population here, including slaves and women, who obviously couldn’t vote) of the most to least populous states (Virginia to Delaware) was about 13:1, obviously still skewed but nowhere near today’s.
So what’s the solution here? Maybe none; I personally rank this below the other 2 problems in priority. If you did want to address it, you could either add senators to states above a certain population (for every 5 million, an extra senator on top of 2, perhaps), break up states (either actually break up states or just add electoral regions for big states like California or Texas), or merge smaller states (again, either actually merge them into 1 state or just say Wyoming and Montana get to elect 2 senators between them). I don’t think any of these are necessary to really improve things; it’s just worth pointing out how demographic changes have resulted in an entirely different situation than what the Constitution’s drafters were dealing with in the 1780s.

So how do you solve these? I’ll touch on this in a post tomorrow. There’s no one way, and none of these are particularly likely to ever happen, but there are some easy fixes, ranging from total revamps to minor tweaks.

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