Zack Scott, a visiting assistant professor of political science at Bryn Mawr, is among the experts to contribute to a Wallethub piece on the states with the most powerful voters in 2020. Wallethub has permitted us to reprint Scott's answers to their questions about the influence held by voters in these states.
Do you think it’s fair that all states are represented by only two senators, regardless of population?
I would not evaluate the design of the Senate in terms of “fairness.” The goal was to provide equal representation to the states. The Senate does indeed treat all states equally. Based on what the intentions were, yes, the Senate is “fair” in that no state receives special treatment.
The real question is if it is harmfully undemocratic to have such unequal distribution of political representation across the population. It is clearly undemocratic. The format of the Senate provides more political power to residents of small states than big states. In a democracy, all citizens are supposed to be afforded equal opportunities to engage meaningfully with the political system. The Senate obstructs that. The extent to which it is harmful has to do with how preferences are distributed across those states. If the citizens (and, consequently, their senators) of the small states want different things than the citizens of the big states, then the popular will is being thwarted, which is politically harmful. In modern American politics, it does seem that preferences are not equally distributed, which means the two-per-state format of the Senate is leading to outcomes of policy that do not meet with what the voting public wants.
What are the consequences of having so many gerrymandered, non-competitive House districts? How does this impact governance?
It is important to remember that gerrymandering, in some form or fashion, has happened for a very long time. Some suggest that gerrymandering is a recent phenomenon and responsible for increasing polarization. But we see the Senate, whose members represent states and are therefore independent of gerrymandering efforts, polarizing right alongside the House.
That said, gerrymandering is not without costs, especially when partisan state legislatures are able to draw the lines. The most successful tactics “pack” supporters of one party into a small number of districts and “crack” blocks elsewhere to make sure they are just enough that they will always be close but not enough that they will win. The result is that the party that drew the lines can receive only 40-45% of the vote but retain 55-60% of the offices. These representatives, knowing that the lines are drawn so that they should be able to retain political power no matter what, are then able to legislate against the preferences of the people.
Should we reform how votes are apportioned in Congress (both the House and the Senate)? If so, how?
That is easier said than done, but I am inclined to say yes. In the House, multi-member districts (where possible) may be a good way to go. We may also want to consider expanding the membership of the House so that congressmen from California and Texas are representing smaller districts than they are now, closer to the population of Wyoming or New Hampshire, to become more equitable. The Senate is trickier by design. Statehood for D.C. and Puerto Rico (pending a vote to ensure that statehood is what those geographic areas want) might help alleviate some of the immediate problems, but the root cause is more structural. The two senators from California represent ~68x as many people as Wyoming. The two senators from Texas represent ~50x as many people as Wyoming. We can’t realistically break Texas into 50 pieces, but some changes may be worth debating.
Should there be a non-partisan Federal Commission that would organize and supervise the voting process or should voting procedures be left to the states?
There are advantages and disadvantages to both options. Leaving elections to the states actually creates significant safeguards. We don’t really have a “national election” in the U.S. We have more than 50 separate elections. Furthermore, individual counties within states or territories are able to exercise significant discretion. This means that it is really hard for someone to “hack” or “rig” our elections because doing so means wildly different things from state to state, county to county. Doing so would just be too hard to coordinate with so much systematic diversity. That said, having so much heterogeneity also makes it easier for smaller-scale instances of intentional or accidental voter suppression. Counties can have poorly designed ballots or states can restrict the number of polling places. A centralized, federal commission could (at least theoretically) mitigate such problems. Although, given modern partisan politics, this federal commission would undoubtedly become a political target.
Between the two, I think centralizing our elections makes more sense. But it is important to remember that this may be coming with an increased risk of susceptibility to external threats to the efficacy of our elections. The current decentralized system results in too many instances of voter suppression, however, and so that tradeoff is worth it.
The major in Political Science at Bryn Mawr aims at developing the reading, writing, and thinking skills needed for a critical understanding of the political world. The focus of the department is on analytical sophistication rather than on knowledge of a body of facts. Graduates learn to think critically about political life in a variety of settings.