Lately large majorities of voters have found themselves increasingly at odds with a federal government ruled by the Republican Party. On gun safety, gay rights, abortion rights, wages and Medicare — just to name a few of many such issues — most American voters aren’t getting what they voted for. This mismatch between pols and polls shows that our elections are becoming less democratic in ways that are baked in, benefit Republicans and beg for our attention.
The Founding Fathers knew enough about the democracies in ancient Greece and medieval Italy to fear a tyranny of the majority. But three of their tools for fair governance have been gamed by Republicans to create an unforeseen tyranny of the minority.
First, Alexander Hamilton, writing in Federalist Papers No. 68, worried that voters might choose a potential despot; one who had “talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity.”
To prevent that, they erected the Electoral College as a firewall composed of electors “opposed to cabal, intrigue, and corruption.” Hamilton imagined they would overrule voters who chose an unfit leader, especially one in whom “foreign powers,” were, “raising a creature of their own to the chief magistracy of the Union.”
We see how well that worked. Donald Trump lost by nearly 3 million votes. Yet an Electoral College on autopilot foisted him on our republic. No other developed democracy puts a second place loser in charge.
Second, our Founding Fathers gave two seats in the U.S. Senate to each state regardless of size. More than two centuries later, this formula means a party winning both seats from the 26 smallest states could rule the Senate with barely a fifth of the nation’s voters. But one needn’t go that far. Fifty-four senators, 51 of them Republicans, backed the appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. But they represented only 44 percent of the US population.
Third, our Founders gave the right to draw U.S. House district lines to state legislators. In 2012, Democratic U.S. House candidates gathered 1.3 million more votes nationwide. But Republicans, gerrymandered their way to a large majority of House seats; enough to spawn an unpopular government shutdown a year later. This isn’t new. Republican President Benjamin Harrison declared gerrymandering to be “political robbery” in 1891. No other developed democracy allows parties to rob voters by drawing their own district lines.
Like the Founders, I’m not using the word “tyranny” in the literal sense. Nonetheless, I think they would be disappointed to see the nation ruled this way. But Democrats, Independents and pro-republic Republicans can cure this tyranny of the minority with three voter-driven remedies.
A constitutional amendment aimed at changing the Electoral College could, sadly, be blocked by a mere baker’s dozen of small states. But the Constitution does allow a legal workaround — an interstate compact — that can dismantle this firewall that no longer defends the republic. Find the details at www.nationalpopularvote.com. In a nutshell, states can instruct their electors to support the winner of the national popular vote. This workaround becomes effective and neutralizes the Electoral College when composed of states with 270 electors. We are almost two-thirds of the way there. In May, Connecticut became the most recent of a dozen states with 172 electors that have joined this interstate compact.
The second problem of small states giving control of the Senate to a minority party won’t be changed through an amendment either. But nothing is stopping Democrats from replicating then party leader Howard Dean’s 50-state strategy that gave the country a Democratic Senate backed by an actual majority of voters from 2006 to 2014. There’s no good reason for Democrats to lose, especially on economic issues, in small, rural states where campaigns are less expensive.
The third problem, gerrymandered districts, can be solved by the kind of non-partisan redistricting commissions used in every other developed democracy. Twenty-three states either have commissions, are seeking them or don’t need them for their single district. That leaves 27 states in which polls show most citizens are aligned with the late Republican president Ronald Reagan. In a controversial 1988 interview he supported such commissions, criticizing the present system as too partisan.
With those three voter-driven solutions in place, citizens can break the country free from this tyranny of the minority.
Frank Hyman, a former Durham City Council member, is the policy analyst for Blue Collar Comeback.