Democracy American Style

By Bobbie Kirkhart

Although the midterm elections are already over, my German friends are still asking me what they are all about. They say that most Europeans don’t understand American midterm elections. I’m not surprised. Neither do most Americans.

Like much of the world, we have two legislative bodies. The ‘Lower House’ or House of Representatives with 435 legislators. Each state is allocated a number of representatives, based on its population although every state must have at least one. These representatives are elected every two years on even-numbered years. The entire House is up for election at the same time.

The state government decides its district boundaries, and although the Constitution requires that these include about the same population, both Democrats and Republicans have been known to Gerrymander, that is, shape the districts so that one party has an overall advantage in their state.

Every state sends two delegates to the ‘Upper House’, the Senate. They are elected by the entire state. Any new law must win both houses to pass it, but only the Senate confirms the president’s appointments to executive offices and judgeships. Senators are elected for six years, but only one-third is elected each even-numbered year.

But why do we elect the entire House of Representatives but only one-third of the Senate? It’s simple: Our founders wanted a government that could change but not one that would change too suddenly. That’s why the Senate terms are staggered but the House can, theoretically, have complete turnover every two years.

But what is indeed confusing is the fact that the Republicans gained seats in the Senate with 31,597,555 votes and the Democrats lost seats with 40,296,662 votes.* This is the result of what our history teachers called, “The Great Compromise.” When our founders got together ‘to form a more perfect union’, the less populous states were reluctant to join, lest they be overrun by the bigger ones. Establishing the Senate with two representatives for every state pacified them. As one of about 40 million people in California, I’m represented by two senators, just like my cousins in Wyoming, with a population of under 600,000. Nothing becomes national law without the Senate’s approval.

This also influences our presidential races as the elections aren’t direct. We vote for our states’ electors who then vote for the President of the United States. The number of a state’s electoral votes is the total of its Congressional representatives, the House of Representative plus the Senate. This indirect method has given us five presidents who did not win the popular vote.

This year, about 113,000,000 people voted, the first time in our history to have more than a million participants for a midterm election. For a country with historically low voter turnout, this was amazing, and we are quite proud. We are assured that every vote counted, if not equally.

*These numbers are a bit distorted because California, ever the eccentric, ran two Democrats for the same seat. Subtracting the vote from the losing Democrat in California, the Democrat’s vote total is 37,424,152, about six million more than the Republican.

Bobbie Kirkhart is a past president of the Atheist Alliance International and of Atheists United. She is a founder and past vice president of the Secular Coalition for America. She is a frequent contributor to U.S. freethought publications.