The proposal backed by a California billionaire to carve up the nation’s most populous state into three new states is either quixotic or cutting edge, but it seems very likely to find its way before voters in November.
The road from voter approval through Congress, which would have to agree to the new states and increasing the number of US senators by four, would be long and far from guaranteed.
But apart from the arguments of the venture capitalist Tim Draper and other backers of the movement to split up the state, it presents a good opportunity to look at the growing pains the US continues to experience during the 219 years of this American experiment.
It’s hard to argue that the system today doesn’t disadvantage residents of large states like California – at both the US Senate and presidential levels. A Californian’s vote simply does not carry the same weight as the vote of someone in a smaller state.
The way it stands, a state with a population of more than 39.5 million people has the same number of senators as Wyoming, a state with less than 600,000, according to the most recent US Census projections.
There’s a really interesting chart at the must-bookmark The Green Papers website that uses Census data used for the 2010 congressional apportionment and displays people per Senate seat and people per House seat.
Calfornia, which had 12.5% of the population at the time of that tabulation, had one senator for every 18,670,995 Californians. Texas had one senator for every 12,364,209 Texans. New York and Florida had one senator for every 9 plus million residents. In that regard, Californians’ voice in the Senate was diluted, to say the least.
Even if California was split into three roughly equally populous separate states, as backers suggest, Californians would go from living in the most populous state by far to living into either the 4th, 5th or 8th largest state. Their voices in the Senate would be on par with places like Illinois and Pennsylvania, according to those 2010 apportionment figures cited at The Green Papers. (Note: there will be a new apportionment after the 2020 Census is completed).
It is true that in terms of people per House seat, Californians are doing better than smaller states.
California has 53 seats in the House, compared to the seven states (Wyoming, Vermont, North Dakota, Alaska, South Dakota, Delaware and Montana) that only have one.
Montanans have the worst ratio of people per House seat at nearly a million (994,416). Californians rank 31st in terms of people per House seat at 704,556.
But there’s a strong argument that the House votes, while extremely important, matter a little bit less than Senate votes. Senate rules include the filibuster, which means either of Wyoming’s two senators have a lot more power to slow things down or stop them than any one of California’s 53 (unless those 53 are Kevin McCarthy, the Californian who is the odds-on favorite to be the next speaker of the House, or Nancy Pelosi, the chamber’s top Democrat).
Where the disparity really comes into play – and you knew this was coming – is in presidential elections, which as we all know are determined by a state’s electors and not by the votes of people in the states. Each state gets a number of electors equal to its total number of representatives on Capitol Hill. (Except Washington, DC, which gets the same number of electors as if it had any voting representatives on Capitol Hill, which it doesn’t, but that’s another story. Or Puerto Ricans, who don’t have any say at the presidential level unless they leave Puerto Rico and move to a state like Florida. Another other story.)
So California gets 55 electors – a powerful number that has been a huge unmovable bloc for the Democratic candidate. Three smaller states would change that equation, which would surely make a lot of Democrats just as nervous as the idea of four new senators would make Republicans nervous.
But that 55 electors equals one elector per 678,945 Californians, according to the Green Papers data. Which means each Californian voter has the least individual say at the presidential level. Because it has two senators, Wyomingians have the most say. There’s one presidential elector for every 189,433 of them, according to that 2010 apportionment.
There are a ton of reasons for all of this, most of which date back to the late 1700s when the founding fathers were trying to figure out how to agree on a national government. The did some horrible things – like counting slaves as 3/5 of a person – and made other bargains to get the job done.
Hillary Clinton wants to get rid of the electoral college altogether. The political reality is that won’t be happening any time soon, although there have been a number of relatively serious efforts, including in the late 1960s, when a bill to eliminate it passed the House, but was – yep, filibustered – in the Senate. CNN’s Chris Cillizza ticked through a number of these efforts – from Richard Nixon to Jimmy Carter – recently.
There’s a lot of merit in the idea that people in less populous places should have protections to shield them from the whims of all the people living in cities.
The country has changed a lot in the intervening 219 years. California was 60 years away from statehood when the Constitution was signed, for instance. The disparity between small states and big ones has always existed. When Wyoming became a state in 1890, it only had 62,555 residents, according to the 1890 Census. California had grown exponentially to 1.2 million people and New York had a little more than 6 million.
But the way the country has grown has exacerbated the problem. Yes, Wyoming has grown in the 128 years since it became a state. California has certifiably exploded.
There have been five US elections in which the winner did not get the most popular votes, including two of the last five elections. They could come more often as the US population grows and shifts. It’s a solid bet that the next Democrat who runs for President will spend a bit more time in the Midwest and Rust Belt than Clinton did.
President Donald Trump has said that if the electoral college system were different, he would have campaigned differently, and focused on cities. That’s a valid point.