Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Presidential election system has always been skewed in favor of small, rural states; now more so

NYT chart (click on it to view a larger version)
Rural voters, given much credit for Donald Trump's victory, have long had outsize influence in presidential elections, and the advantage has become more pronounced as rural population has declined to 15 percent of the national total, Emily Badger reports for The New York Times. A Democratic candidate has won the popular vote in six of the past seven elections for president, but this year and in 2000 a Republican won the Electoral College count.

"Rural America, even as it laments its economic weakness, retains vastly disproportionate electoral strength," Badger writes. "Rural voters were able to nudge Donald Trump to power despite Hillary Clinton’s large margins in cities like New York. In a House of Representatives that structurally disadvantages Democrats because of their tight urban clustering, rural voters helped Republicans hold their cushion. In the Senate, the least populous states are now more over-represented than ever before. And the growing unity of rural Americans as a voting bloc has converted the rural bias in national politics into a potent Republican advantage." Electoral College votes are based on the number of a state's representatives in Congress, including each state's two senators.

Frances Lee, a professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland, told Badger, “If you’re talking about a political system that skews rural, that’s not as important if there isn’t a major cleavage between rural and urban voting behavior. But urban and rural voting behavior is so starkly different now so that this has major political consequences for who has power.And it’s not just in terms of policy outcomes. This pervasively advantages Republicans in maintaining control of the U.S. national government.” (Times graphic: The minimum share of the U.S. population able to elect a Senate majority)
The perceived rural basis dates back to the beginning of the nation, Badger writes. "When the framers of the Constitution were still debating the shape of institutions we have today, 95 percent of America was rural, as the 1790 census classified the population. The Connecticut Compromise at the time created the Senate: one chamber granting equal voice to every state to counterbalance the House, where more populous states spoke louder."

"And they made sure the compromise stuck," she writes. "Today, equal state representation in the Senate is the only provision in the Constitution that cannot be amended. But even as a deliberately undemocratic body, the Senate has slipped further out of alignment with the American population over time. The Senate hasn’t simply favored sparsely populated states; politicians in Washington created sparsely populated states to leverage the Senate’s skewed power."

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