The United States is a famously and proudly diverse country. But because of the two-senators-per-state rule, the United States has become a country overrepresented by —and forced to cater to — the least diverse and least representative portions of the country.
Consider this: the least populous 26 states have roughly one-sixth the population of the most populous 24. As a result, absolute authority for federal judicial appointments, and executive office confirmations, is in the hands of senators representing only 17.57 percent of the population.
In other words, 82.43% of Americans (according to the July 2018 population estimates) have no voice over some of the most important decisions affecting their lives. Put another way, a vote by Americans who belong to that privileged 18% is worth roughly 5.7 times the value of a vote by the other 82%. Consequently, senators who represent just over 57 million Americans can legally and freely impose their will on those who represent 269 million. And largely as a result of slavery and its fraught aftermath (which included institutionalized Jim Crow and flagrant discrimination against people of color), the composition of that electorally advantaged 18% is quite different from the composition of the rest of the United States.
Blacks make up just short of 11% of the total residents of the 26 least populous states. They constitute over 15% of the population of the most populous states. Ethnic minorities (classified by the Census as Latinos, Blacks, Asian Americans, and Native Americans) are not particularly well integrated into the populations of the country’s least populous states. In those states (Wyoming, Vermont, Alaska, North Dakota and South Dakota), there are 39 whites for every Black person. In the five most populous states (California, Texas, Florida, New York and Pennsylvania), you find 4.5 whites for every Black person. The five least populous states have 15 times the number of non-Hispanics as they have Hispanics. In the most populous states, the ratio is 1.5 to 1.
Segregated America imposes its will
We are talking about two very different Americas, with the most segregated America empowered to impose its will on the most diverse. It is a power that is used routinely, and its exercise tears at the very fabric of an increasingly diverse nation.
In a country with highly racially polarized voting patterns, our insistence on putting power in the hands of an unrepresentative minority is an invitation to social discontent — and perhaps a looming disaster.
When it comes to changing what is clearly a cockamamie and deeply flawed system, Americans apparently stand helpless — in large measure because we have convinced ourselves that the system has more merit that it has, which no doubt stems from our view of the Founding Fathers — not as flawed mortals who gave as us the tools to improve on their work but as gods who constructed a template for a Perfect Union.
We forget that the Constitution was forged in an era totally unlike our own by frustrated and exhausted men fretting over how to make workable compromises with people who believed in their right to enslave other people, or who just didn’t much believe in federal power at all. Somehow the Founders managed, by a one-vote margin, to agree on a scheme for a Senate that defied the very concept of democracy but would allow them to move on.
No one who believes in democracy would come up with such a system today. No one would argue, with a straight face, that the rights of the few outweigh the rights of the many. Imagine, for a second, what would happen if politicians were to propose that we reallocate votes in such a way that every city dweller gets one vote, every suburbanite gets two, and every rural resident gets three. Those politicians would be laughed out of office. Yet we accept, without much question, rules that make the Senate even more inequitable and extreme.
Allow me to propose this: If the prospect of changing the Constitution is too daunting to contemplate, let’s just change the composition of the states.
Imagine what would happen if, say, 30 million people who are Black, brown, or under 35 and who now live in megacities, such as New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, suddenly moved to Wyoming and North Dakota.
Indeed, if we strongly incentivized just 3 million people of color from the five most populous states (total population: 122,756,000) to relocate to the five least populous (total population: 3,589,000), the political implications would be staggering. Or imagine moving five million voters from the 10 most populous states (total population: 177,237,000) to the 10 least populous (total population: 9,365,439). The results would be revolutionary. The shift in voting would fundamentally change the United States, making it endlessly more democratic. The result would be a significantly healthier and less polarized society.
A New Great Migration, a fresh start
What would happen if our major foundations decided one part of their mission was actually to form a more perfect union, to make political leadership more representative of the country’s citizens? What if, in short, civil society got behind the idea of a New Great Migration? What if major foundations decided to help deserving people of color who were having a hard time in such places as Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., and subsidized them and set them up with homes and jobs in, say, New Hampshire and Montana? God knows, at a time when so many have lost jobs due to the COVID-19 pandemic, countless Americans would grab the opportunity for a fresh start.
If we are stuck with polarized voting blocs, let’s at least spread them around. Let’s find ways to make a virtue out of what has heretofore been a prescription for gridlock and heartbreak — and what has facilitated the imposition of the will of a minority on a helpless majority.
If we lack the determination, the sense and the power to change the Constitution, we can at least lessen the impact of one of the Founders’ biggest mistakes: their acceptance of an obscene distortion of democracy. That situation will only get worse as urban centers continue to grow and our political leaders become increasingly less representative of the country’s reality. It’s long past time for people of goodwill to change the United States for the better.
Ellis Cose is a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors and the author of "Democracy, If We Can Keep It: The ACLU’s 100-Year Fight for Rights in America," published in July. This column was adapted from "The Short Life and Curious Death of Free Speech in America," coming Tuesday from Amistad. Follow Cose on Twitter: @EllisCose
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Distorted democracy: Change the Constitution or the states to fix it