Democracy Dies in Darkness

WorldViews | Analysis

How to explain to someone living abroad that Democrats can have over 10 million more Senate votes and still lose

November 7, 2018 at 11:17 AM

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Following Democratic gains in the House and Republican gains in the Senate, The Fix's Aaron Blake analyzes the winners and losers from the 2018 midterm elections. (JM Rieger/The Washington Post)

BERLIN — As Europeans woke up to the results of the 2018 midterm elections on Wednesday, their primary question — what next for a president who is so deeply unpopular here? — remained largely unanswered.

But European news networks still dedicated hours-long specials to the key vote. And while viewers here tried to make sense of the results, they repeatedly stumbled over two numbers: the total votes for Democratic and Republican Senate candidates. More than 45 million Americans voted for Democratic Senate candidates vs. about 33 million for Republican contenders, according to figures updated around 11 a.m. Eastern time Wednesday.

As the animated TV graphics clearly showed, though, it was Republicans who ended the night in control of the Senate — not the Democrats. “An extraordinary electoral system,” tweeted an incredulous state secretary in the German state of Hesse.

So how could Democrats outpace Republicans by more than 10 million votes and still fall further behind in the Senate? The answer is that there’s really no such thing as a nationwide Senate vote. It all comes down to which states are electing Senators.

As my colleague Max J. Rosenthal explained, only a third of Senate seats come up for reelection each time there are congressional elections (that’s every two years). This year, 26 of the 35 of the seats being contested were held by Democrats, so more Democratic voters showed up to the polls. A lot of those voters cast ballots in states where Democrats were safe — think New York, Virginia or Minnesota — so there wasn’t much media coverage.

Then there’s California. “It has a unique system in which the top two candidates advance to the general election, regardless of party,” explained The Post’s Aaron Blake. “This year, that was two Democrats. That means all 6 million votes counted (with many more to come) go to the Democrats. Given California is by far the biggest state, that badly skews the national ‘Senate popular vote.’”

From a European perspective, though, some questions remain — namely, why set elections up like this and not simply based on the overall popular vote, as is the case in many democracies?

In the case of the Senate, it goes all the way back to the drafting of the U.S. Constitution in 1789. Creating a new form of government required compromises of all kinds to get enough states to approve the document. One of them was to create a legislature with two chambers, one that gave each state equal representation and one that based representation on a state’s population. Having a Congress solely based on population, which some people argue for today, was one of the stalled ideas that led to this compromise.

That system remains in place today in large part because it’s part of the Constitution, which is difficult to amend. Opponents wouldn’t be able to change the system simply by passing a new law.

In other countries, all of this is often seen as evidence that U.S. democracy no longer works properly. “Farewell to the biggest pseudo-democracy in the world,” read a recent headline in Austria’s Der Standard newspaper. It ran atop an opinion piece discussing America’s “underdeveloped electoral system.”

But as much as Europeans may be puzzled by those rules, seemingly undemocratic rules are not unique to the United States.

Britain’s electoral system favors bigger parties over smaller ones and still has not gotten rid of its unelected House of Lords, the upper house of Parliament. Germany’s rough equivalent of the Senate, the Bundesrat, also over-represents Germany’s smaller states: The tiny state of Saarland can send three representatives to the Bundesrat, while the country’s most populous state, North-Rhine Westphalia, has only twice as many representatives despite being 18 times more populous.

The difference between those examples and the Senate, however, is their respective influence. The Senate plays a critical role in the U.S. government, while the upper houses of most European democracies do little to affect policy decisions.

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Rick Noack is a foreign affairs reporter who covers Europe and international security issues from The Washington Post's Berlin bureau. Previously, he worked for The Post from Washington as an Arthur F. Burns Fellow and from London.

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