US Government is not democratic

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union…”  Famous and stirring words.  But words that leave unanswered an important question: Union of what?

The structure of the sentence is such that you would think that it is the people who are intended to be the chief beneficiaries of that more perfect union.  But a careful reading of the document shows that it was really intended to form a union of states.

Article I of the Constitution vests the legislative powers of the government in two bodies– the House of Representatives and the Senate.  Senators are apportioned two per state, so they clearly represent states, not the people. (Originally Senators were elected by state legislatures, but the 17th Amendment replaced that method with direct election by the people of each state.)

Members of the House of Representatives are elected directly by the people of each state, so it would seem to be the more democratic of the two institutions.  But there are two additional conditions that skew the House toward small states.  The first is the requirement, stated in Article I, that each state must have at least one representative.  The second concerns The Permanent Apportionment Act of 1929, which fixed the size of the House at 435 members.  Thanks to these two rules the House of Representatives provides smaller states with disproportionate representation.  California has a population that is almost 80 times larger than that of the smallest state, Wyoming, but it only has 53 representatives in the House.  So a voter in Wyoming has greater representation in both the House and the Senate than does a voter in California.

The Permanent Apportionment Act of 1929 was intended to keep the House of Representatives fixed at a “reasonable” size. It was felt that if the numbers of representatives were to increase as the population increased it would eventually result in a body too large to achieve any meaningful result.

Our Constitution was chiefly intended to protect the rights and powers of the states, not the people.  (The Bill of Rights was added after the Constitution was ratified to protect the rights of citizens.)  Because the makeup of the U.S. legislature favors small states over large states it does not represent the citizens of the United States in proportion to their numbers and therefore our government cannot be called a democracy– or even a representative democracy.

Should we regard this as a problem? Or should we just shrug our shoulders and surrender to the weight of history and accept the current order as sufficient for the purposes of government?

The chief problem with the current order is that the people of this country are not getting what they want from their government. Large majorities of the American people favor more gun controls, not less. Large majorities want abortion to be legal, and they want it to be available to those least able to pay for it. Large majorities want more to be done about climate change and about our crumbling civil engineering infrastructure.

But measures to make progress on these issues have repeatedly stalled in the U.S. Senate. And why? Because the people of states with smaller populations often perceive such issues as being inimical to their local culture. There are 9 states that have more than half of total U.S. population. That gives those states only 18 percent representation in the U.S. Senate. That’s just wrong– and it has resulted in a stagnant government that is stuck in the past.

There is only one way that this stranglehold can be broken. And that is by breaking the association between states and the way that senators and representatives are elected. As currently configured the federal government only has one elected person who represents the nation as a whole– and that is the President. All other elected officials represent localities. As a result the President alone represents the will of the people of the nation; all others represent the will of states, or of regions within the states.

I fully accept the principle that if either the Senate or the House were to grow without bound as the population increases they will reach a point where it will be impossible for the two bodies working jointly to govern. That is, there must be an upper bound on the sizes of each of the two bodies. These maximal sizes should be governed by the psychology of group dynamics, rather than by the numbers or geographical dimensions of the several states.

I propose a bicameral system of legislature with a Senate and a House, as we have today– but with the pronounced difference that the Senate would represent the people of the nation as a whole, while the House would represent local regions within the nation. States would continue to have the general protections guaranteed under the Constitution, particularly in Article IV. But the people would directly elect their representatives in the federal government irrespective of state boundaries.

Let us say, for point of argument, that we agree on an optimal number of X Senators and of Y Representatives. For the Senate, I propose that the entire voting population of the United States be divided into X units, call them “Senatorial Blocs.” Each voting citizen would be randomly assigned to one such Bloc, and each Bloc would vote to elect one Senator. This approach accomplishes the following objectives:

  • It limits the total number of Senators to X, regardless of the numbers of States in the Union, or the number of people in the voting public
  • It ensures that each Senator is elected by the same number of registered voters
  • It guarantees that the Senators would represent a national perspective, rather than a local perspective

For the House of Representatives I propose that the entire voting population would be divided into Y geographical groupings, call them “Representative Districts.” Each District would represent a geographical region of the country that contains the same number of registered voters– but these regions would be drawn irrespective of state boundaries. The voters of each District would elect one Representative to the House. The Districts should be configured as contiguous, rather than disjoint, to ensure that each District represents a locality with a distinct identity. However this principle will need to be flexible enough to accommodate special cases like Alaska and Hawaii which are not contiguous with any other geographical parts of the United States.

To see how this would work in practice, let’s suppose that the total number of registered voters in the United States is about 200 million, and that we have decided that there should only be 500 members of the House. Then each Representative District should contain a total of 400,000 voters. For some especially dense urban areas several Representative Districts would be packed in close together, while in more rural areas a region might have to span one or more state boundaries to fully encompass its allotment of 400,000 voters. The New York City metropolitan area with its more than 8 million residents might need 40 or more such districts, whereas the voters of the state of Wyoming would probably need to be grouped with those of another bordering state to form one complete district representing 400,000 voters.

This method of electing Representatives would have the following advantages:

  • It would limit the total number of Representatives to Y, regardless of the total number of registered voters or the total number of states
  • It ensures that every voter is represented by exactly one Representative
  • Each Representative would reflect the views of a geographic region of the country with a corresponding regional identity
  • Each Representative would be elected by the same number of registered voters

The conditions set forth above ensure that the two resulting legislative bodies would never grow in size beyond X for the Senate and Y for the House. And they further guarantee that the Senate would represent the perspectives of the nation as a whole, while the House would represent geographical regions with local identities. These two perspectives on the nation’s governance will, I believe, add immeasurable benefits to the long term health of the nation.

But most importantly these policies will change our mode of government to that of a truly representative democracy, since each elected Senator or Representative would be represented by the same number of registered voters as for all other Senators or Representatives, respectively.

Policies such as those outlined above could not have been implemented in 1789, as it would have required a national registry of all voters in the nation. And of course such a registry would have to be updated as voters move from one state to another, or change their names, or die, or become convicted of a crime and therefore lose the right to vote. With the technology available in 1789 it would simply have been impossible to build and properly maintain such a registry. But in today’s world of massively parallel computing systems building a registry of every voter in the country would be a relatively straightforward task. In fact, such a system would solve a number of problems that have been plaguing voting systems throughout the country. How and when to purge voters from the voting rolls? How to prevent voters from voting more than once by registering in two or more states? A national registry of all voters is by far the safest, easiest, and best way to resolve these and other security issues.

The Constitution of the United States is a marvelous construct. It represents a bold and daring break from the monarchical past. It enshrined the principle of the rule of law as an antidote to the arbitrary rule of a king. It has served as an inspiration to other nations that sought a democratic future. And in the principle of self-amendment specified in Article V it showed itself to be adaptable to the challenges and needs of the future.

But the Constitution was a product of its time. It didn’t just allow slavery to persist– it was designed to preserve slavery. It didn’t grant women the right to vote. And it was conceived as a protector of the rights of states. Only after it was ratified were the first ten amendments added as a Bill of Rights, almost as an afterthought, to protect the rights of citizens.

The Constitution followed the general pattern of the Articles of Confederation in that it was designed around States. There is certainly no need or reason to dissolve the States, as they are perfectly viable political entities that are well adapted to serving local needs. But the Legislature of the U.S. Government should represent the needs of the people of the nation as a whole, not the states in particular. And for that reason the current method of electing Senators and Representatives must change.

Written 2020-10-26

Copyright (c) 2020 by David S. Moore

All rights reserved.