The Decline of Majority Rule


With all the recent talk of the Blue Wave and recounts, there's a lesson in this year's midterms that is largely going unnoticed:

The diminishing power of the majority in our democracy.

You, of course, remember that Hillary Clinton won 3 million more votes than Donald Trump while losing to him in the 2016 election, but the Electoral College is just one visible example of a deeper phenomenon.

State legislatures across the nation have also been skewing away from the majority.

Look at the supposed 'purple,' swing state of Ohio. The GOP won only 50.3% of the total vote in the Midterms, yet the Republicans won 63% of State House races - 73 of the 116 elections.

And it was the same in the Buckeye State races for Congress. In Ohio's sixteen Congressional districts, Republicans won 52% of the vote, while commanding 75% of the seats.

Ohio is not alone. Gerrymandered maps have been problematic elsewhere. North Carolina and Maryland come to mind.

This diminishing influence of the majority was analyzed last July by the Economist.

The magazine pointed out that congressional discrepancies are attributable to Democrats winning their seats with big majorities in fewer districts, whereas Republicans will prevail by narrower margins in a larger number of districts.

Before the 2018 Midterm concluded, the Economist found that for the previous three House races

"Republicans' share of House seats has been 4-5 percentage points greater than their share of the two-party vote. In 2012 they won a comfortable 54% of the chamber despite receiving fewer votes than their Democratic opponents; in 2014 they converted a 51% two-party-vote share into 55% of the seats."

The Wall Street Journal's editorial board recently disagreed, arguing that gerrymandering played an insignificant role in the midterms due to the national popular vote aligning almost perfectly with the number of seats won by Democrats.

That argument overlooks that it's not the national landscape which is poorly represented, but that individual districts and states fail to fairly represent their constituents.

But the problem is more than map-making.

Consider the Senate – where rural states with hardly any population have the same number of Senators as densely settled states.

So Wyoming, with fewer than 600,000 people, has the same number of Senators as California's almost 40 million.

Yes, representation in the Senate is the way founders intended it to be.  They wanted to represent places, not people.

But as Paul Krugman wrote in the New York Times,

"This divergence will have profound implications, because the Senate has a lot of power, especially when the president - who, let us not forget, lost the popular vote - leads the party that controls it."

Four of the current nine Supreme Court Justices have been appointed by Presidents who lost the popular vote.

There's no simple solution to the declining influence of the majority.

The emergence of additional parties could help. After all, both George Washington and John Adams worried about power being concentrated in just two.

There does seem to be a demand.

A 2017 analysis from Pew points to nine  - not two - distinct categories that voters identify with, ranging all the way from "Core conservatives" to "disaffected Democrats" to "solid liberals."

Of course, if the two majority parties broadened their appeal, that could provide more proportionate representation. Democrats in rural areas. The GOP in the cities.

In fact, former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor argued last week in the Times that the GOP's very survival in national politics is contingent on winning back suburban, college-educated voters via a more moderate agenda.

Constitutional amendments could change our Presidential elections to a direct system, not via the electoral college, and the Senate representation could theoretically be restructured - both unlikely in this climate.

The option of a Constitutional Convention exists - if called for by 2/3 of the states. That's a mechanism never implemented.

Shy of these, the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact commits states to support the winner of the national popular vote, not their state's victor.

Finally, multi-member districts and ranked choice voting are additional out-of-the-box remedies.

Or, maybe again we look to Ohio.

Ohioans in 2015 voted to reform the way statehouse districts will be drawn, beginning in 2021. Then, earlier this year, Ohio voters did the same for congressional districts.

Both votes got over 70% support.

Shy of such reforms, the diminished say of the majority will further erode confidence in our system of government.