Let’s Talk about Representation: 5 Things You Probably Didn’t Know about American Politics

Did you know that the United States is the only country in the world where a presidential candidate can win the popular vote but lose the presidency? The United States is heralded as the first modern-day democracy and one of the most, if not the most, representative democracies in the world. But, this isn’t necessarily the case – the United States’ winner-take-all electoral system means that only two parties dominate the political arena, and all too often, the voices of minorities are barely represented, if at all. The polarization in Congress is now so deeply engrained within America that Democrats and Republicans are more ideologically divided than at any time in U.S. history since Reconstruction.

1. You don’t vote for president, you vote for electors who vote for president.

We don’t popularly elect the president. While Ms. Clinton won the popular vote by almost three million, Mr. Trump won more electors, which granted him the presidency. The vote we cast for president on election day represents a vote for an elector within your home state. These electors must vote for the candidate that wins the majority of votes in their state.  

2. ​​All votes aren’t represented equally.

Did you know that California’s influence in presidential elections is only 85 percent of its total population, while Wyoming’s influence in determining the winner is more than three times bigger than the vote share of its population? Small states have considerably more weight in national politics than do large states, which dilutes the influence of larger states with higher populations. This means that states with incredibly low populations have a disproportionately stronger effect on both the trajectory of national policy (each state gets 2 representatives in the Senate) and in terms of electing the president. 

3. Though most countries have neutral agencies draw district boundaries, America’s is determined by partisan controlled state governments.

There is strong evidence that Democrats will not regain a majority in either the House or the Senate in 2018, even though backlash against President Trump seems especially strong. The reason for this is gerrymandering: drawing election districts that favor a candidate from a specific party. Because the Republicans control the House, they will inevitably manipulate district boundaries in their own favor, which means that they will draw districts that favor Republican candidates. We may not see a Democratic take-over of Congress until 2020, when Mr. Trump will be up for reelection.

4. The U.S. has a strikingly low level of females in politics.

We have yet to have a female president lead our country. Brazil, Israel, India, South Korea, and the United Kingdom have all had female heads of government. Our winner-take-all system where only one seat is up for grabs is remarkably disfavorable for female candidates, especially compared to countries where more seats are available.

5. America’s wealthiest have a greater influence over elections and legislation than the poor and the middle class.

America’s top one percent have money, and money buys policy outcomes that disproportionately favor the interests of the elite. Did you know that if 80% of wealthy Americans support a policy it has a 50 percent chance of passing, while the policy has a 32% chance of passing if 80 percent of the poor support the change? Pricey campaign contributions from the wealthy to politicians means that they are far more likely to listen to their wealthiest constituents than the poorest. 

Resources:

Poole, Keith T., The Roots of the Polarization of Modern U.S. Politics (September 8, 2008).

Taylor et al. A Different Democracy: American Government in a Thirty-One Country Perspective. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014. Print.