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When you realize that the unbalanced nature of the electoral college is a symptom, and not the problem…

January 13, 2018, 4:38 PM

With the recent talk about a potential Oprah Winfrey run for president, I started thinking again about how to fix our unbalanced electoral system, and the least difficult way to do it.

But first, since I mentioned it, just to eliminate all doubt: Oprah Winfrey should not run for president, at least not right now, for the same reason that Donald Trump was not qualified for the job, i.e. no experience in public service.  If Oprah wants to run for president, she should do like most presidents have done, and run for a local office and start a proper public service career.  Even Ronald Reagan, who was an actor prior to entering politics, was governor of California before he was president.  A career in public service prior to running for the top spot shows that you’re serious.  I’m sure that Oprah would make a pretty good Chicago alderman as a first step, and then on to a state legislature or Congress.  Governor of Illinois, maybe not, because most Illinois governors go to jail after leaving office, it seems.  But in any case, if you’re serious, and not just doing it for attention, you go through the proper channels.  We want to leave Trump as a fluke, and not make this whole TV-personalities-as-president-with-no-public-service thing a trend.

Of course, the whole reason that we ended up with Trump in the first place is because we have a very unbalanced electoral college system.  After all, more people voted for Hillary Clinton than Donald Trump, but because of the unbalanced nature of it all, it tipped toward Donald Trump.  Because its votes are allocated based on the amount of representatives and senators, it skews in favor of states with low population.  According to this map by Slate, the top three most powerful votes are found in Wyoming, Vermont, and the District of Columbia.  The bottom three are California, Florida, and New York.  In other words, the most populous states have the least voice per capita in determining who becomes the prez.

Back in 2016, when I wrote my election postmortem entry, I suggested the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact as a suitable solution for the electoral college.  I am no longer sure that the compact is the best solution to the electoral system’s woes.  I feel like that just puts a patch over the real problem: Congress.  Since 1913, the House of Representatives has contained 435 members, and the size was fixed at that amount in 1929 due to concerns over the House chamber’s capacity.  Therefore, since then, any reapportionment of seats has been a matter of rearranging the same 435 seats, meaning that if one state gains a seat during a reapportionment, another state has to lose one.  There is no allowance for growth in population – just comparative sizes.  And the population has grown considerably since then.  The 1920 census, which was the most recent when the 1929 act was passed, listed the country’s population as 106 million.  We’re now at 308 million as of the 2010 census, i.e. the population has roughly tripled since 1920.  But we still have the same 435 representatives.  Going strictly on numbers, 435 representatives into the 1920 population of 106,021,537 comes out to approximately one representative for every 243,727 people.  Today, using the 2010 number of 308,745,539, it comes out to approximately one representative for every 709,759 people.  This does not take state boundaries into consideration, since you can’t, for instance, take some of Montana and lump it in with Wyoming as far as representation goes.  That all figures into how Congress breaks out, and it creates some unevenness.

The solution, as I see it, is to lift the 435-member limit, and apportion representatives based on a designated amount of people, give or take (it’s never going to be perfectly exact due to state boundaries’ dictating certain limits).  I believe that communications technology now in common use obviates the need to limit the amount of representatives to what will fit in the House chamber.  We already have cameras in the chamber for C-SPAN, so what’s to stop Congress from using videoconferencing technology to bring the membership together at multiple sites, especially when, ever since the 1970s, voting is already done electronically?  One could have the main House chamber in the Capitol, and then have one or more satellite chambers elsewhere in the city (or in the suburbs), as necessary.

The big question, therefore, is how many people should there be per representative.  According to Federalist 55, the intent was to have one representative per 30,000 people.  Going with the 2010 population number, that works out to approximately 10,291 representatives.  My gut feeling is that having that many representatives seems excessive, though it would be very representative.  Hell, you could fit your entire district’s population inside certain large sporting venues.  By that number, Wyoming, the lowest-populated state, would have approximately 19 representatives, and California, the highest-populated state, would have 1,241 representatives.  Going with 200,000 people per representative, a number much closer to what it comes to for the 1920 census, you would end up with approximately 1,543 representatives total.  That would give Wyoming three representatives, and would give California 186 representatives.  And that’s not that bad.  And I figure, with that many representatives, you could house them in NoMa, which seems to be teeming with empty office buildings.  Do some buildouts and stash a few hundred congressmen in there.

Having so many representatives will also limit the impact of gerrymandering, if you can only put so many people in a district.  Since I moved to Montgomery Village back in November, I’m in Maryland’s 6th District, which is a fairly ridiculous district, though by no means the worst in Maryland.  The district encompasses all of western Maryland up to approximately South Mountain, and then turns southeast, with something of a neck through part of Frederick County, and then a bulb encompassing most of western Montgomery County.  My representative is John Delaney, who is from MoCo.  Like he really understands what’s going on out in Cumberland.  At one representative for 200,000 people, Maryland, with a 2010 census population of 5,773,552, would have approximately 29 representatives, and that would almost mandate more compact districts than the way that they snake around the state right now.

And then with more representatives in the House, the electoral college will mostly sort itself out, when you get the districts more in line with population, and not just rearranging the same number of seats over and over again based on population shifts.  The only other thing that I would do would be with a newly enlarged electoral college, would be nationwide adoption of the Maine/Nebraska allocation method, i.e. allocate electoral votes by congressional district, with two at-large electoral votes for the senators, and not have a winner-take-all for each state.  Therefore, if your district of 200,000 votes for a Republican, that’s what your electoral vote is cast as.  If your district votes Democratic, then that’s what it goes as.  If your district voted for Evan McMullin, then so be it.

And it just takes the passage of a single law to enact, rather than getting many states to agree on something that might be ruled unconstitutional, like the compact.  Is it likely to happen?  No – because no one wants to give up power.  But it should happen, but it would take a lot of political fortitude to make it happen.

Categories: National politics