The State Shuffle
Much like an operating system for a computer, every government system needs a periodic update to better handle evolving work loads, external threats and inherent flaws. The operating system of the American government is the Constitution, which comes with a built-in system for user updates. We know these as amendments, and their importance was realized when the first operating system of America, the Articles of Confederation, was released with too many bugs to be functional. Recent events have reignited a desire to update our operating system, and while understandable focus is on the Executive and Judicial branches, the branch that best expresses the will of the American people - the Legislative branch - is vital to discuss.
Some historical context is necessary. The United States of America had its genesis from the thirteen British colonies that broke away from the empire in the late 1700’s. While united in their desire to leave the hegemony of the crown, these colonies were functionally independent from each other. Fear of invasion by vengeful Brits or the Iroquois Confederacy led to a widespread desire for common defense and unity, but this would require a legal framework that all of the former colonies would agree with. After the Articles of Confederation proved unsustainable, the Constitution of the United States of America was drafted.
An important function of the Constitution was alleviating fears of the smaller states being overwhelmed by the influence of the larger states. There were three characteristics of the Constitution that made this possible. The first was the decision to give each state two Senators, regardless of population. This meant that Delaware and Texas have the exact same influence in the upper house of Congress - arguably the most important component of the entire government - despite Texas having over 28 times the population of Delaware.
The second was the decision to guarantee that each state has at least one Representative in the House. This by itself does not give a concerning amount of influence to smaller states. What upset the balance was the Reapportionment Act of 1929, which permanently capped the House of Representatives at 435 members. Prior to then, the House grew along with the population of the United States, increasing from 59 members to 435. After 1929, this meant that as America continued to grow in population - particularly in states with important urban centers - the states that were relatively underpopulated received ever greater influence in steering the country. For instance, while Rhode Island gets one House Representative for every 530,000 people, Colorado gets one House Representative for every 775,000 people. This essentially gives Rhode Islanders a 50% greater influence in the House than Coloradans.
Both of these mechanisms contribute to the third characteristic - the electoral college. Known nowadays for electing two presidents in the span of 16 years that did not win the majority of the vote, the design of the electoral college gave less populated states a disproportionate amount of influence in selecting the president. This is because each state is assigned electors by the amount of senators and representatives they are allotted in Congress. As both Senators and Representatives are assigned with methods that give disproportionate power to less populated states, this means that a voter in South Dakota has vastly more influence in selecting the President - 1 elector per 143,000 people - than New York - 1 elector per 500,000 people.
Before we make any determination of what action or inaction we must take on this subject, we must decide what the United States of America puts a higher priority on - state’s rights or individual rights. Should representation and, by extension, political power be based on the agreement that states make when forming and joining the Union? Or should political power be based on the idea that America is made up of citizens of equal standing? The Civil War sets some precedent for deciding this; the core issue of the American Civil War was whether a state had aright to trample on an individual’s rights in the form of slavery. The side that represented individual primacy - the Union - was victorious over the side that represented state primacy - the Confederacy. The decline of the importance of individual states can be seen in the linguistic shift from the antebellum plural referencing of the United States - “The United States are” - toward the contemporary singular referencing - “The United States is”.
There are some plausible reforms we may undertake to make a more perfect Union. We could eliminate the Electoral College and have every American have the same weight in selecting the most powerful person on Earth. Prior to the 17th Amendment Senators were selected by state legislatures instead of directly by the people; just as we altered the Constitution to expand the democratic selection in the Legislative branch, we can alter the Constitution to expand the democratic selection in the Executive branch.
In addition, we could undo the 1929 Reapportionment Act and expand the House to better represent American voters, but a decision will have to be made on how much it should be expanded by. Article 1, Section 2, Clause 3 of the US Constitution specifies that one House Representative should not represent less than 30,000 people, but if we were to apply that to the current population in the United States we would have over 10,000 House Representatives. A proposed alternative is known as the Wyoming Rule. Using the least populated state as a baseline with 1 representative- currently Wyoming - each state would have as many Representatives proportional to its population compared to Wyoming. For example, Wyoming has 580,000 people, Idaho has 1,750,000 people and Florida has 21,000,000 people. Using the Wyoming Rule, Idaho would have three Representatives and Florida would have thirty-six Representatives to Wyoming’s one.
There is another action that, while politically infeasible, is interesting enough to mention. As previously mentioned, the United States of America started as many independent states federating themselves into one Union, with each state getting two Senators. Being components of the whole, they were able to maintain the plausibility of independence from the federation, which was eventually seized upon by the states breaking away to form the Confederate States of America. The victory of the Union over the Confederacy was a victory not only of individual rights over states rights, but of the federation over the states. If we were to assume that the federal victory was absolute, and the United States of America was more powerful than the sum of its components, then the definition of a state within the union changed from a nominally independent entity to an administrative subdivision. And if that were the case, states as they exist now could be dissolved and reformed to create more efficient administrative and electoral districts.
This is infeasible because so much of the Constitution is built around the concept of states rights, and the idea of a state consenting to dissolving itself for reformation as directed from Washington D.C. is a long shot, to put it mildly. But similar reforms in other countries have occurred quite recently. France is administratively divided into regions, and in 2014 the French parliament voted to reduce its number of regions from 27 to 18 through merging, which went into effect in 2016. Between 1965 and 1975, England reformed its administration and altered counties to better reflect the contemporary needs of governance.
Neither France or England are federal republics like the United States is, but the idea of redrawing states remains an interesting one. Would it be best to reform the states around the largest cities in America, with each city controlling all currently dependent counties? Would it be best to follow the English model by having metropolitan states and rural states? Could we eliminate the abomination that is New Jersey by splitting it between New York and Pennsylvania? One can dream, but it seems the disproportional representation in the Senate is one that is not likely to change any time soon.
As such, it is better to focus efforts on feasible political reforms. There are already a substantial amount of Americans that want to abolish the Electoral College, but uncapping the House is a reform that Americans desperately need to make a push on. Tying these two related issues together with anti-corruption efforts would likely have broad inter-party and independent support.