In an effort to stave off what is most likely an inevitable slide into national chaos, Jill Stein, doing something useful for the first time all year, has raised funds to call for recounts in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan. The combined total of votes that gave Trump these three states–all of which showed comfortable Clinton leads in the polls–was around 100,000. There are some rumors of monkeying around with tallying, too, but the recount, at least, seems like a solid idea with it being so close. May as well dot those i’s.
The recount is being driven in part by the fact that Clinton has a two million vote lead on Trump in the overall popular vote, which makes it seem hinky that he somehow managed something more than just a bare majority in the electoral college. That he has more than three hundred electoral votes is a quirk of population distribution and our weird 50-little-countries system, not the will of the people.
It’s the population distribution part of this I want to look at today, however. While I reserve a scintilla of hope that recounts and/or audits may flip the results, or that the members of the electoral college may decide to dump him anyway, chances are good that this is what we’re stuck with. Scary on its own, but what’s even scarier is that we’re looking at having the exact same problem in 2020.
The number of electoral votes each state gets is determined in part by how many Congressional districts it gets. There are 538 total EVs, which correspond to 488 House reps, plus 50 members of the Senate. As with the Senate, though, this tends to give more weight to states with lower populations. Every state gets a minimum of two Senators and one House rep. Wyoming, the state with the lowest population, therefore gets three electoral votes, whereas California, with the highest, gets 55. This works out to very disproportionate representation: Wyoming gets one electoral vote per every 155,000 people, while California gets one per every 711,000. There are arguments to be made for and against this system, depending on where one falls on the question of federalism, but that’s another post. For now, I want to dig into where things went wrong this year: relative population growth.
Congressional districts are distributed according to population, taken from the most-recent Census. In this case, that’s 2010–six years ago. Those figures will be in effect through the 2020 election, then districts will be redrawn based on that year’s Census, to affect elections in 2022-2030. At the time this system was set up, it made sense: People generally stayed where they were born, or ventured only to nearby states, and they didn’t do it very often. Westward expansion was barely on the minds of the Founders because to undertake such a thing would have been incredibly difficult with the transportation tech available. As it was, the expansion that did happen was a grueling venture, and many died (of dysentery! Or something else that killed off your Oregon Trail pioneers.)
For the developed world in 2016, however, moving not just across the country but around the world is merely a matter of packing up your stuff, loading it in a truck, and then getting yourself and your stuff to your new home in whatever quick and cheap way you can. A domestic move can take as little as a weekend. An international one, outside of immigration paperwork, maybe a month. In my 45 years, I’ve lived in three states, six metro areas and about a dozen different homes and apartments. One year, I lived in three different cities. Such mobility would have been nearly impossible for all but the very rich or very nomadic at the time the Constitution was drawn up. Anyone trying to raise kids or grow their own food would never have had the chance to do that. So to base Congressional districts and electoral votes on something that only happens every 10 years made sense at the time (and that’s not counting how difficult gathering that information was then, too. Now, we just return a form in the mail.)
You can see the problem with this system: Mobility is so much faster and more accessible now that drastic population shifts can happen well before the next Census picks it up.
The above is a screenshot of data from Census.gov. Note that the “left coast” well outpaced the national population-growth average. (The percentages of immigrants and people of color also went up.)
Now let’s look at other states:
Totally different story, here. People aren’t moving to these states. What little population growth there is probably comes from new births, not migration. Like most of the country, these states are getting a point or two less white, but otherwise, their population has been pretty stable. The electoral votes they have this year are probably accurate. Oregon, Washington and California, though, have lost voting power relative to these states because their population growth has been so sharply higher. As the economies of these three states are booming, they’ll probably still keep up the pace, meaning every year, each person voting in these states becomes a little less powerful.
Now of course there are blue states that have stayed stagnant–Vermont–and red ones that have had sharp growth–North Dakota–but in terms of the effects on this election and the next two, voters in the stagnant Rust Belt are going to be considerably more powerful than their counterparts in California.
So how do we fix this? Well, it’s not easy, but there is one possibility: Get people to move. With such a slim margin for those three states, if only a tiny fraction of Californians were to move to, say, Madison or Philly, things could change pretty drastically. People trying to escape far-more-red states might consider moving there, too. Milwaukee may not be Berkeley, but it’s also not Tulsa. The more blue-leaning folks get the heck out of red states, the more their populations will fall, and so will their number of House reps and EVs (though obviously there’s a point of diminishing returns.)
Unfortunately, I’m stuck where I’m at in the PNW because our household depends on being close to tech centers and being in a state that better guarantees our safety and access to health care (being queer and sick = I can’t exactly move wherever I want.) But I’d like to encourage anyone who can manage it to consider heading for a swing state. There are some good blue cities and college towns dotted around there. If you have easily transferable job skills and the resources, give it some thought.
In the meantime, there’s also something else other folks can consider: Move to a swing district within your own state/region. There are several GOP Congress seats that could be nudged blue if enough people moved there. Again, I can’t manage that by 2018 or even 2020, but we’re already looking at going somewhere in WA-08 within the next 10 years, so if Dave Reichert’s still warming the seat there, we can try to give him the boot.
Other than that, there are no easy answers other than the ones that are already in progress: fighting voter-suppression efforts, keeping people engaged for mid-terms, hoping race and age demographic change eventually pays off, etc. Assuming the Mango Mussolini hasn’t nuked us all or instituted martial law by then, we need to get together an absolutely enormous effort in two years to at least keep him in check with a D Congressional majority. We’ll have a little bit of help in that his “throw the bums out” fans are going to get annoyed when they don’t get a pony right away in January and realize he is, in fact, one of the bums, but we can’t count on that. We need to wipe our tears, empty the trash can of the accumulated wads of tissue and get moving. Literally, if possible.