Early last year, I mentioned to a cousin that I would be spending about a week in Washington D.C. touring around later that. This is something I do every 5 years or so. After mentioning this, she became more interested in the conversation as her son, Alex, knew very little about the American Government and wanted to learn more. Plus, he had a job lined up that would not commence for another month so we coordinated a visit where we could learn and spend a few days to better understand our nation’s history and our current federal system of government. Here’s part of the conversation we had last year while touring Washington D.C.
As we walked by the White House, Alex first asked what happened in the 2016 Presidential election. He had briefly heard there was a lot of controversy around the last election. He asked, “How can Candidate D (Democrat) get almost 3 million more votes than Candidate R (Republican) and lose the election?”
I took a deep breath before responding. I said, “Alex, we tell ourselves we’re a democracy but democracy has representative government. Not sure about you but I don't feel represented by too many politicians, especially at the federal level. Yes, Candidate D achieved nearly 3 million votes but lost. Imagine how those Candidate D voters feel about such an unfair system.”
He thought a minute and said, “That’s more than 1 percent of the population in the USA, and not all of these Americans qualify to vote. How is that possible in our great country?”
We have a very old system called the Electoral College that determines who will be our next president (just for clarification, this has nothing to do with the university). Each state has a certain amount of electoral votes based on its population. For example, California and Texas are the most populous States so they receive 55 and 38 Electoral votes respectively. Louisiana and Delaware have a much smaller population so they receive 8 and 3 Electoral votes respectively. To win the presidency, you need to get at least 270 out of the possible 538 Electoral votes.
In recent history, Presidential candidates will do some calculus and determine which States they’ll win, lose, or States that are tossups. In other words, if Candidate R knows they will win the South (besides Florida), they'll not campaign much there. The same principle applies if Candidate R knows that a given state is more liberal and they have no chance there. In this scenario, no campaigning will be done by Candidate R. Candidate D does the same calculus which means that there may only be 7 to 10 states that are too close to call – that’s where most campaigning and target advertising will occur.
This conversation began to get heavy so we decided to find some shade in hot and muggy D.C., even in September, so we could discuss in cooler temperatures. Alex continued to press me to better understand our system, he asked, "Is that representative government if candidates only visit a handful of states every four years?" He continued, "Don't those states that are left out of the picture feel excluded? Also, if these states that lean left or right don’t see much campaigning, there’s the economic loss too with no campaigning in those states.“
I just shook my head and said “Many people who want a fair Federal election want the Electoral College abolished but that will take a huge undertaking at the federal level to accomplish. To abolish, that would mean that two-thirds of the House, two-thirds of the Senate, and three-fourths of the States would all have to agree to do so. What happened in 2016 also occurred in 2000 where former V.P. Gore had more overall votes but lost due to the Electoral College (there’s a lot more to the story that we may revisit later). Considering that this phenomenon occurred twice in the last 16 years to Democratic candidates, most Republican Senators don't feel the need to make any changes whatsoever to the Electoral College. And with the divisiveness in the current Senate, a tsunami with 100-foot waves hitting Utah is more likely to occur.
Alex admitted that he studied American geography and nothing about politics so he’s aware of our landscape and some demographics. He wondered out loud what representation does very sparely populated States such as Wyoming or Montana receive in the U.S. Senate?
I told him that each of these two states sends 2 Senators to D.C. for 6-year terms. In other words, a really big deal within our legislative process.
Alex had a puzzled look on his face and began to ask me what about a more urban state in terms of their DC representation in the US Senate. He asked, “What about California, a state which I think has nearly 40 million residents (This state has the 5th or 6th largest economy in the world). How many Senators does California get?”
At this point, I had to tell him that each state, regardless of the size or population, each receives 2 U.S. Senate seats. At that point, I could tell that Alex was so far not impressed with our Federal Government.
Because he previously knew nothing about the American political system, he needed to be certain he understood this description so far. After a moment, he asked, "Don't the American States with more cattle than people have much more clout and influence than those really large states? And wouldn’t urban areas possibly be underrepresented?"
I went on to say it appears rural American has much more clout, especially in the U.S. Senate than more urban states. I anticipated his next question.
Alex asked, “Doesn’t that piss off those being gipped with a lack of political influence?”
I replied, “In some ways it does but you have to realize in America, many of our amendments (we chat later about that) and laws don’t significantly change over time…I sometimes think that not much gets done in Washington. Perhaps it’s a swamp in several ways.”
Alex seemed to calm down and then asked about the two legislative branches.
You have the House of Representatives and the Senate. With 50 states and 2 Senators per state, we have 100 in the Senate. The House has 435 members. Typically the House will pass a bill and the Senate will decide whether or not to consider. The Senate Majority Leader is (maybe because we have more rural states with increased representation) is voted on based on the party with the most U.S. Senators. Considering that the SML decide what legislation to consider, whatever party which controls the Senate has the power to deny or ignore legislation regardless of the intent. Does that help to make sense?
Alex scratched his head in exasperation. He remembered that many rural states were conservative, each with two votes and it just so happens that the Republicans are currently in power. They control the most important legislative branch even though they were elected in much smaller states. He was losing faith knowing that a party that counts on many rural states could dictate what the President sees or not sees.
I mentioned that in the 2016 Senatorial election, there were 34 Senators up for re-election –10 Democrats and 24 Republicans. 45.2 million votes were cast for Democrats and 39.3 million for Republicans. To get more in the weeds, Senator Lisa Murkowski of the rural State of Alaska received 111,000 votes in being re-elected. Democrat Senator Chuck Schumer of the large State of New York received 4.8 million votes. Based on this, I'm not sure if this is a truly representative government.
At this point, we agreed that we had spent enough time discussing the American political system and would chat about things later. For now, we were going to just enjoy the free museums in D.C. for the rest of the day.
So let me summarize the conversation I had with Alex. We elected a president in 2016 that lost the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes. This occurred as a result of our archaic Electoral College implemented in the late 18th century in America. Because of the EC, the idea of one person one vote doesn’t square with the current system of electing a president. Each state has two U.S. Senators regardless of the population. Just for the record, California, with a population of about 40 million has the same representation as Wyoming, a state with fewer than 1 million residents (Before continuing, I must say California’s population is the equivalent of approximately 20 sparsely population states). If my math is correct, 20 times 2 Senators bring us to 40. Because smaller states are more rural and lean more conservative, it often provides Republicans a strong chance of having a Republican majority in the Senate. When this occurs, this majority means the Republican Senate Majority leader can decide what legislation to allow for debate and consideration. According to a Newsweek article published in February of 2020, Mitch McConnell, the SML said the House of Representatives (with a Democratic majority) had passed 395 bills that he won’t even consider as they are not aligned to his policy goals. So in this scenario, the Republican Party in the Senate, are often elected with fewer votes overall than Senate Democrats but control and dictate what bills and laws the President may see.