Saturday, November 10, 2012

The House of Un-Representatives

Looking at the election results from Pennsylvania, I was glad to see that we had voted for Barack Obama and Bob Casey, but surprised that we elected only 5 Democrats from our 18 Congressional districts.  Was there that much vote splitting?

Then I learned that Pennsylvania wasn't alone.  As Ezra Klein points out, Democratic candidates for the House got 54,301,095 votes while Republicans got 53,822,442, but Democrats got many fewer House seats, only 193 to 233 for Republicans.  (Nine races are still undecided.)  So Democrats got half the votes but only 44% of the seats.

I looked up the Congressional election results for Pennsylvania, and with 99.61% of the precincts reporting, Democratic candidates for House seats got a total of 2,702,900 votes, Republicans got  2,617,031 votes, and other parties got 41,080 votes.  So Democrats got 50.4% of the votes, but won only 28% of the races.

How could that happen?  It happened because some Congressional districts were lopsided wins for Democrats, while most Republican wins were narrower, so the Democratic votes were concentrated in a few districts.  Specifically, 41.9% of all Democratic votes were cast in the 5 Congressional districts that the Democrats won.

And why did that vote concentration happen?

The easy answer is that the Republican-controlled Pennsylvania legislature fixed the Congressional districts to favor Republicans, but that's only part of the answer.  The fact of the matter is that Democratic votes tend to be concentrated in urban areas, and in Pennsylvania that means Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.  Once that many voters of one party are congregated together like that, it is fairly difficult to construct districts with proportionate numbers of voters of each party.  Republican-controlled legislatures might have made the problem worse, but the problem was going to be there regardless.  And it's only going to get worse as time goes on because there is a growing tendency for people to cluster together with other people with similar political views, as explained in Bill Bishop's book, The Big Sort.

The irony here is that the House of Representatives was supposed to be the branch of the government that would be most responsive to the will of the people, with direct elections every two years.

The Senate was only indirectly responsive to the people, with Senators elected by state legislatures.  Senators are now elected by popular vote, but the allocation of two Senators for each state gives less populous states--which tend to be Republican--a disproportionate amount of power, and the Senate is slow to change because Senators are elected only every six years.

The election of the President is even more indirect, and so the President was going to be the least responsive to the people, because the President is chosen by "electors" selected by each state "in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct," which means that popular vote is not needed at all.  And we complain about the role of the "Electoral College" in Presidential elections every four years, but the results of the Electoral College usually match the results of the popular vote.

So we've now got a President who was elected with the support of a majority of the voters.  We've also got a Senate with 54 Democrats and 46 Republicans, which is roughly the same percentages as the popular vote for President and so roughly representative of the voters.  But we've also got a House that is distinctly not representative of the politics of a majority of Americans.

So the whole system has turned upside down, with the President becoming the most representative of the popular will and the House becoming the least representative, a House of Un-Representatives.

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