Editorial: A broken electoral system

Published: 2/16/2020 6:00:28 AM

Most Americans have faith in the fairness of the electoral system, though they recognize that it’s flawed.

No mobs took to the streets in 2000 when a conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court all but handed the presidential election to George W. Bush, the loser of the popular vote. There was grumbling but no civil unrest in 2016, when the vestigial Electoral College made Donald Trump president though his opponent beat him at the polls by nearly 3 million votes.

That faith, however, is being tested by foreign meddling in American elections. Tested by history, which accords every state, big or small, two senators, giving out-sized clout to states with small populations. Tested by the Electoral College system, which makes some votes worth three or so times more than others and worth nothing in winner-take-all states.

Gerrymandering, drawing districts to give one party a significant advantage over another, puts a thumb on the scales while the Supreme Court looks the other way. It’s made politics grossly partisan. In many districts the greatest threat to an incumbent comes not in the general election but from a primary challenger whose views are further to the right or left.

The electoral scales have also been tipped by time. Vermont, in 1860, had more people than Florida. As of the 2010 census, Vermont has a population of 625,741 and three electoral votes, or one for every 209,000 people; Florida has 18.8 million residents or one electoral vote for every half-million people.

New Hampshire, with 1.35 million people and four electoral votes, benefits from the Electoral College and the Constitution’s two senators per state provision. But the apportionment of political power has become deeply undemocratic. The beneficiary has been the Republican Party, whose members dominate the Senate despite regularly winning a minority of the popular vote.

Recently, journalist Ezra Klein, founder of the news and analysis website Vox, published Why We’re Polarized, one of many books exploring the great American political and cultural divide. An excerpt of the book published in The New York Times included a startling statistic: By 2040, 70% of Americans will live in the 15 largest, mostly coastal states. Those states are predominantly blue or purple. That 70% will, thanks to the skewed system, be represented by only 30 senators. Meanwhile, the other 30% of America in mostly red states will be represented by 70 senators.

“It is not difficult to envision an America where Republicans consistently win the presidency despite rarely winning the popular vote, where they typically control both the House and the Senate despite rarely winning more votes than the Democrats. . . . Down that road lies true political crisis,” Klein wrote. He’s right.

More than a few speakers during President Trump’s impeachment hearings referred to the Senate, no doubt to curry favor, as “the world’s greatest deliberative body.” Perhaps, at times in the past, it was. But what deliberation there was has been almost completely supplanted by nakedly partisan plays for party power.

The U.S. Senate, as evidenced by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s successful attempt to deny a president a Supreme Court appointment, is a failed institution.

Many prescriptions for change to make presidential elections and Senate representation fairer and more democratic have been proffered. It’s time for all of them to get serious consideration.

None will be easily accomplished, but we agree with those who believe that the unfairness that is the status quo presents a danger to democracy.

How do New Hampshire’s senators, current and past, assess the situation? We look forward to sharing their views.

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