How Representative is our Representative Government?

After a very contentious and competitive mid-term 2018 election, (among many other results) we have seen the following:

  • The Democrats regained control of the House of Representatives
  • The Republicans increased their majority in the Senate despite not holding on to two seats (Arizona and Nevada) and losing two others in States where President Trump comfortably won election (Montana and West Virginia)
  • The State of Ohio produced comfortable wins for a moderate Republican Governor (Mike DeWine), a left of Center Senator (Sherrod Brown), and a heavily Republican delegation to the House of Representatives
  • A slew of high-profile races with razor thin margins (Senate races in Arizona and Florida, Governor races in Florida and Georgia).

These results, in particular the tight races in Arizona, Florida, and Georgia and the mixed party results in Ohio led me to ask the question: How representative is our Representative Government?

Based on media reports immediately following the election, the results would most certainly be grim with lawsuits filed in both Georgia and Florida, recurring issues with ballot counting in Broward and Palm Beach Counties, and Sherrod Brown stating that if Stacey Abrams lost the Governor race in Georgia the election was essentially stolen from her, I wanted to dig a little deeper and see if the data supported this narrative.

Voting Results – House of Representatives

My first foray into the data was to look at actual voting results for the House of Representatives as compared to the seats won by each of the parties. I decided to start here for two reasons:

  • It is very difficult to “nationalize” a race for a single House seat in a full election cycle which leads the election results are more representative of the actual constituency than other races.
  • All House seats are elected during each cycle so the vote analysis would be for the National Electorate and not just for a singular or subset of States.

Here are the cumulative results:

  • Democrats received 55,218,626 votes (51.9%)  for 232 seats (53.3%)
  • Republicans received 49,265,585 votes (46.3%) for 200 seats (45.5%)
  • Three Seats remain undecided at the writing of this article

From a National perspective, while the Democrats are slightly over represented in the House as compared to their overall vote total, the seat apportionment in the House nearly reflects the overall voting of the United States electorate (or at least those that voted during the 2018 mid-terms).

So, the next step would be to analyze the disbursement of these seats. The original intent was to ensure that each seat in the House of Representatives would correlate to roughly the same size of population, and thus as the country grew, the number of seats in lower chamber of Congress also grew. Given that each State would be guaranteed at least one seat in the House, this did slightly skew the balance but with such a large number of Representatives, this was situation was deemed acceptable. Fast forward to present day and the number of seats in the House has been fixed at 435. After each census, seats are redistributed to reflect the population patterns within the country. A short list of the largest states outlines this below:

  • California: 12.13 % of the population and 12.18% of the seats in Congress
  • Texas: 8.75% of the population and 8.27% of the seats in Congress
  • Florida: 6.50% of the population and 6.20% of the seats in Congress
  • New York: 6.06% of the population and 6.20% of the seats in Congress

So, while not a perfect match, the largest States do have relative representation in Congress. The final piece of our Representative Democracy comes down to how the seats are actually chosen.

State Legislatures draw each Congressional districts, apportioning the state into the designated number of Congressional districts, working to ensure that the population ratios of each district are roughly the same. However, as has been the case since Congressional districts have been drawn up, the party in power of the Legislature will establish boundaries, often times with odd shapes and confluences of communities, to maximize the number of seats their party will send to Congress. Gerrymandering, named for Elbridge Gerry who as the Governor of Massachusetts first drew these odd shaped districts to benefit his political party, can greatly disproportionately establish a State delegation. Consider the following as we look at the four most populous States:

  • California: 85% (45/53) seats held by Democrats
  • Texas: 36% (13/36) seats held by Democrats
  • Florida: 48% (13/27) seats held by Democrats
  • New York: 74% (20/27) seats held by Democrats (2 as yet to be determined)

Three of the four most populous States are grossly over represented by a single party (California and New York for the Democrats, and Texas for the Republicans although slightly less out of balance). The same can be said from a regional perspective as the Northeast (ME, NH, MA, VT, RI, CT, NY, NJ) will send 52 Democrats out of an available 60 seats (with 2 undecided) for an 87% clip.

So, if we combine the fact that the National voting pattern generally aligns with the party makeup of the House, but that two heavily populated areas (CA and the Northeast) are heavily over-represented by Democrats, that means other areas, specifically the South and Central regions of the Country are over-represented by Republicans. However, outside of Texas, over-representation would be expected. Given that many of these States have smaller population bases, and fewer House seats, it becomes much more difficult to apportion the number of House seats to the voting electorate. For example, States with a single House seat will always be over-represented and when the popular vote is close, that over representation becomes even more magnified.

The real tragedy in all of this is that while party alignment within the House appears generally intact, our government does not provide a true national representation. Republicans, like Democrats, are different throughout across the country. Southern Democrats may be more Conservative than Northeast Republicans. Likewise West Coast Republicans may be more liberal than some Southern Democrats. But as it stands we have a concentration of Northeast and West Coast Democrats and Southern and Middle America Republicans. This inevitably leads to more partisan caucuses and reduces the ability (as well as incentive) to cooperate with the other party.