Here’s an underreported fact. There are two Americas. One is urban. The other is rural. And therein lies much of the current Red-Blue divide.
I’ve lived in both Americas. That certainly does not make me an expert on the topic, but a degree of insight does come with the experience.
The subject is more important than one might think, at first glance. It’s connected to all sorts of thorny issues from whether the Electoral College has run its course, to whether places like Washington, D.C. or even Chicago (more on that later) should become their own states, to whether representation in Congress is truly representative of the U.S. population, to whether the Senate filibuster should be reformed.
Start with a couple of undeniable facts:
- In the eight presidential elections beginning with 1992 Democrats have won the popular vote seven times. On two occasions—2000 and 2016—the Democrat won the popular vote by a relatively comfortable margin, but lost the election in the Electoral College. In 2020 a change of less than 100,000 votes in certain states could have resulted in a different winner or tossed the conclusion into the House of Representatives, despite the Democrat scoring a national margin of more than 7 million votes over the Republican.
- Add up the populations of Missouri, Minnesota, Colorado, Iowa, Arizona, Kansas, Utah, Nevada, Nebraska, Idaho, Montana, South Dakota, North Dakota and Wyoming, and you end up in the vicinity of 37 million people. Roughly the same number of people as California. Now consider, those 14 states elect 28 of the 100 U.S. senators; California has two senators. Under the Constitution each state is allocated two Senate seats. It doesn’t matter if a state has half a million population or 37 million. Fair? Let’s say it seemed more fair when the Constitution was written nearly 250 years ago, when America’s total population was about 3.9 million (1790 census), still clinging to the Atlantic coast.
Back to my rural Illinois upbringing on the family farm located roughly 300 miles south and near the Indiana border. As far back as I can remember folks around there fumed and cussed over the political sway lodged in Chicago. When it came to state government the only role for downstaters was to pay their tax bills, so Chicago-area legislators could decide how to spend the money. Torrents of cash for the big city, dribbles and drops elsewhere. Not much has changed.
Not surprisingly, rural interests in the General Assembly periodically file bills calling for separation from Chicago, by making it a new state. That way, the state of Chicago could represent urban dwellers, largely Blue, and the remainder state of Illinois could represent the rural population, largely Red. Would that be fair? There are about 12.6 million residents of Illinois, and about 9.5 million reside in Chicago and its suburbs. So, depending on how boundary lines might be drawn, that could still mean two U.S. senators would represent 75% of the people while two other senators represented 25% of the population.
How did we get here, to a point in which obvious malapportionment provides outsize advantages for small populations and remote geographic areas?
Time for a history review. This dispute is not new. The same issues almost derailed the U.S. Constitution in 1787 before it could get started. The smaller more rural states feared domination by the larger more populous states. Coming up with a resolution for the dilemma was controversial but unstuck the process. The United States would have a bicameral legislature consisting of the House of Representatives, based on population, and the Senate, where each state was allocated two senators.
(Footnote: Slavery played an ugly role, as it often has in U.S. history. Southern slave states feared their populations and thus representation in the House would be diminished if enslaved people didn’t count, so a deal was struck for each slave to represent three-fifths of a human being. The slaves, not surprisingly, had no say in the matter and no representation or rights.)
Those compromises of 1787 play a resoundingly large role in American politics and government today, including in Electoral College counting for presidential elections. Think about this. Each California senator represents more than 18 million people. Each Wyoming senator represents about 250,000. In the Electoral College the states’ senators count the same two votes each.
I have no psychic powers to communicate with the dead, but I can’t imagine that’s what the Founders had in mind.
The centuries-old argument is threatening to boil over for several reasons.
First, one of the reasons Congress often seems hopelessly deadlocked is the deep malapportionment of Senate representation, where bills go to die. Add in the filibuster, requiring 60 votes to pass most bills, and the small states fairly easily can stymie measures supported by strong majorities of Americans.
Any idea of forming new states is dead on arrival because it could alter the balance of partisan power in the Senate. Whether it’s Washington or, say, Puerto Rico—each with more population than, say, Wyoming—there’s no way Congress will agree on adding more senators.
The Electoral College? The record since 1992 speaks for itself. Democrats keep winning the popular vote and Republicans rely increasingly on the Electoral College count.
Most people think about elections in terms of one person, one vote. For the White House, that clearly is not the case. What’s the magic margin where the people no longer will tolerate the person who received the least votes being declared the winner? A 10 million vote separation? 20 million?
The terms of the Great Compromise of 1787 are due for renewed debate. The Founders feared tyranny of the majority. They never intended tyranny of the minority. Sympathetic though I am because of my rural roots, a national conversation about the future of democracy is due.
William Barth is the former Editor of the Beloit Daily News.