As former president Barack Obama might have put it: Don’t boo. And definitely don’t riot. Vote.
But some votes count more than others. Some of these inequalities stem from the very structure of our 200-year-old electoral system, while others arise from more deliberate partisan meddling.
Those inequalities have widened in recent years, and in ways that systematically give White, rural and affluent voters a much bigger voice in the political system than non-White, urban and poor Americans. Here’s how:
The electoral college
Electoral votes don’t scale evenly with population. States receive at least three electoral votes (one for each senator and representative), regardless of population. And the electoral votes of the most populous states are functionally capped by the number of U.S. House members, which, with one brief and temporary exception, hasn’t changed since 1929.
As a result, voters in less populated states like Wyoming are overrepresented in the electoral college, relative to those in large states like California. On a per capita level, “each individual Wyoming vote weighs 3.6 times more than an individual Californian’s vote,” as political scientist Katy Collin wrote in The Washington Post in 2016.
States with the fewest inhabitants also tend to be Whiter than their more populous counterparts. As a result, no matter how you slice it, White voters have more power in presidential elections than non-White ones. One recent estimate found that “per voter, whites have 16 percent more power than blacks once the electoral college is taken into consideration, [and] 28 percent more power than Latinos.” Using a different calculation, researchers at the Center for Economic and Policy Research found that a Black vote has about 95 percent of the electoral potency as a White one.
As we’ve seen in two of the past five elections, these disparities can be large enough to hand the electoral victory to a candidate who received far fewer votes than his opponent. As a system designed to bolster the power of rural Whites at the expense of Black Americans, the electoral college continues to work exactly as designed.
Similar dynamics are at play in the U.S. Senate, an explicitly anti-majoritarian institution designed to put sparsely populated states on the same footing as populous ones. The disparity in representation is enormous: A Senate vote in Wyoming has roughly 70 times as much influence on the composition of the chamber as a vote from California.
This, in turn, creates a staggering racial inequality. As David Leonhardt of the New York Times calculated in 2018, “the Senate gives the average black American only 75 percent as much representation as the average white American.” The average Hispanic receives a hair over half the Senate representation as the average White.
Demographic changes have heightened this dynamic in recent years: The American population has urbanized, driven by flows of people away from rural areas and toward large cities. Population-wise, the big states get bigger while the little ones shrink.
Back at the founding of the nation, for instance, if the senators of the smallest states banded together, they could have cobbled a Senate majority representing 30 percent of the population. Today, such a hypothetical small-state majority requires 17 percent of the population.
What this means in practice: The Senate, as an institution, is much more responsive to the policy preferences of a voter in Wyoming than one in California, New York or Texas.
While the structure of our democracy is favorable to White, rural voters, Republican lawmakers have sought to tip the scales in their favor through gerrymandering — the process of drawing districts for U.S. and state House seats to maximize partisan advantage.
A brief refresher: House districts at the state and federal level are redrawn every 10 years, following the census, to ensure that they proportionately represent the ever-changing U.S. population. In most states, unfortunately, the process is controlled by lawmakers who usually have partisan interests at mind.
Using sophisticated mapping software, lawmakers have figured out how to precisely fine-tune the racial and partisan makeups of the districts they draw. This allows them to create legislative majorities for themselves even in cases where they have only a minority of voters, undermining the very purpose of a representative chamber. If this all sounds esoteric, this graphic remains the best illustration of the topic I’ve ever seen.
In 2018, for instance, Republicans lost the popular vote but won control of the state House of Representatives in a number of states: Pennsylvania, Michigan, North Carolina and Wisconsin. This happened because Republicans controlled the redistricting process following the 2010 Census and drew districts virtually ensuring this outcome.
In 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that such political gerrymanders were perfectly acceptable, with Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. arguing that voters displeased with the practice could seek remedy “through legislation.”
Don’t boo, in other words. Vote.
But it is almost impossible to un-gerrymander a state. To pass redistricting reform you need a majority in the state House, but you can’t get a majority in the state House even if you have a majority of the population, because the districts are gerrymandered.
In some states, voters have gotten around this problem via popular ballot initiatives. But not all states allow such initiatives, and even in states where voters have approved them, Republican lawmakers have been known to dilute and undermine their provisions after the fact.
Republican lawmakers also have worked aggressively to limit access to the ballot box under the guise of preventing “voter fraud,” which is virtually nonexistent. Across the country, Republican lawmakers have led efforts to implement voter ID laws, purge voter rolls, roll back early voting, make voter registration more difficult for minority populations and prevent former felons from voting.
This year alone, President Trump has relentlessly attacked voting by mail, falsely asserting it will lead to widespread fraud. The GOP and its allies also have set aside millions of dollars to recruit tens of thousands of poll monitors to challenge ballots in November and spread accusations of election theft in the media.
Over the years, some Republican politicians have acknowledged that the primary purpose of such measures isn’t about fraud but, rather, to make it harder for Democrats to vote. Trump himself inadvertently admitted that partisan concerns are at the core of his attacks on voting by mail.
The net effect of all these policies is that it is typically much harder for Black Democrats to vote than it is for White Republicans.
Big money in politics
Researchers have found, repeatedly, that American lawmakers are more receptive to the needs of wealthy constituents who are able to donate large sums of money to their campaigns and political action committees. One memorable real-world experiment found that identifying yourself as a campaign donor in a letter to a member of Congress increases your odds of landing a meeting with that lawmaker, or his or her chief of staff, by a factor of five.
Other research has found that because the wealthy tend to lean conservative, the role of money in politics means congressional priorities tend to reflect the interests of the wealthy, rather than the working class or poor. The reality-distorting effect of political donations has led both state and federal lawmakers to believe that the public is much more conservative than it is.
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The net result of these factors: We have a Republican president who lost the popular vote; a Republican majority in the Senate representing a minority of voters; Houses at the state and federal levels distorted by Republican gerrymandering; elections in which Democrats face significantly more barriers to voting than Republicans; and a policy landscape distorted by the influence of wealthy conservative millionaires and billionaires.
While this lopsided political moment may be favorable to Republican policymaking, it is corrosive to the public’s trust in democracy. People who are systematically thwarted from expressing themselves at the ballot box may look for other ways to make themselves heard.