The U.S. is a Pseudo-democracy

thanks to the power of former slave-owning states and their current allies.

Asked to define a democracy, most people would start with “One person, one vote.” Yet we have had two presidential elections, 2000 and 2016, where the Democrats lost despite winning the popular vote — in 2016, Mr. Trump lost by a margin of 3 million votes, yet won in the Electoral College by a comfortable margin. That is because more than thirty states still maintain winner-take-all electors.

It is part of the heritage of slavery, one that we have not yet set right. Because the 1787 Constitutional Convention gave every state two senators, whatever their population, Wyoming with 0.6 million people gets two senators, and so does California with 40 million. If the U.S. Senate were to escape pseudo-democratic status by ensuring that each of the 100 senators represented about 3.3 million people, then California would have 12 senators. Wyoming, Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota would have to share one senator. Currently, those four states have eight senators, plus four members of the House.

The Senate has powers which are unique to it, as befits its senior status and a term of office three times longer than House members. Senators approve treaties and confirm the appointment of ambassadors, cabinet secretaries, Supreme Court justices, federal judges, and flag officers; regulatory officials also need Senate approval. And so someone moving from California to Wyoming increases their influence on approving a Supreme Court Justice appointment by a very undemocratic 67 times. Under equal representation for the Senate, one can calculate which states gain and lose.

Gain Senate seats: CA, TX, FL, NY, PA, IL, OH, GA, NC

Average states, still with two Senators: MI, NJ, VA, WA, AZ, MA, TN, IN, MO, MD

States with less than two senators: WI, CO, MN, SC, AL, LA, KY, OR, OK, CT, UT, IA, NV, AR, MS, KS, NM, NE, ID, WV, HI, NH, ME, MT, RI, DE, SD, ND, AK, VT, WY.

While the House tries to reflect population difference, each state is nonetheless guaranteed at least one House member — which, again, privileges rural states. Dividing our 330 million population by the current 435 House members, each ought to represent about 759,000 people, leaving Wyoming over represented in both Senate and House.

A state’s vote in the Electoral College is based on their total number of Senate and House members — and that is what set up the less-than-average-population states for such an outsized influence in American politics, why Republican presidential candidates won in 2000 and 2016 despite losing in the popular vote.

That 1787 compromise was an attempt to keep the slave states in the union. And, for the next 70 years, the slave states were able to use their power in granting state status to maintain their dominance: for every free state admitted, there had to be another slave state. I was born in a slave state, on the very edge of the Confederacy, in Kansas City, Missouri.

I grew up, always living within several miles east or west of State Line Road, the north-south dividing line between between free and slave. On a hot summer afternoon in the 1940s, my mother used to take me to Loose Memorial Park on Wornall Road. Its high ground was the best place to catch a summer breeze in those pre-air-conditioning days. The park was also the site of a Civil War battle: the Battle of Westport, sometimes referred to as the “Gettysburg of the West.” Loose Park still has a cannon on display; I cannot recall if it is a Federal or Confederate cannon. I was too young to care, back then.

About 1950, I can recall seeing separate black and white drinking fountains in some businesses in Kansas City, Missouri.

These days, the ex-slave states have allies in the rural Midwest and in those mountain west states with very low populations. Kansas, formerly a free state, has recently allied itself with the ex-slave states, repeatedly electing state officials every bit as bizarre as some in the Deep South. Alas.

Legally, altering the representation proportions is quite difficult, as the low-population states are unwilling to let loose of their outsized power over the rest of us. To amend the Constitution, the U.S. Senate and House must agree, each with a two-thirds vote. Next, three-fourths of the state legislatures must approve. The slave states drove a hard bargain back in 1787, one that has given the right wing an unfair advantage ever since.

The last time an amendment gained the necessary two-thirds support in both the House and the Senate for submission to the states was the District of Columbia Voting Rights Amendment in 1978. But only 16 states of the necessary 38 had ratified it when the seven-year time limit expired.

Perhaps the Supreme Court needs to address whether the Constitution’s 14th Amendment on equal protection of the law can override how many senators a state gets, as well as the Electoral College’s winner-take-all practice.



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William H. Calvin

President, Professor emeritus, University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle. Author, many books on brains, human evolution, climate