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.

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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.