Striking an optimistic tone after the midterm elections, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has called for a coalition between urban and suburban voters in what he envisions as a durable metropolitan majority built around issues like education, health care, and infrastructure. There is much to Mayor Emanuel’s argument for city-suburb common ground, but this coalition will face fundamental structural difficulties implementing its agenda. As currently constructed, our electoral process systematically favors the preferences of rural and exurban voters.
To move forward with its agenda, any urban-suburban political coalition must recognize this stark reality and decide how best to respond: fight for change, or work within it.
As has often been noted, the equal representation of states in the Senate, regardless of population, systematically favors smaller and more rural states. Wyoming’s 580,000 people get the same two senators as California’s 39.5 million; in other words, a resident of Wyoming has 68 times the Senate voting strength of a Californian. Of course, Texas reminds us that not all populous states are blue and Bernie Sanders’s Vermont (population 624,000) underscores that not all small states are red. But cumulatively, the Senate’s disproportionality favors rural voters who tend to vote for conservative politicians (not to mention the lack of senators for Washington, D.C., a city with more people than Wyoming or Vermont). Because the Electoral College includes a state’s Senate seats in its total electors, the Electoral College is also allocated disproportionate to population, although less so than the Senate.
The second major factor is subtler and rarely noted, but still important: Our prevailing method of allocating legislative seats on the basis of geographical districts—as opposed to a party’s share of the statewide or national vote (proportional representation)—inherently favors rural voters. As political scientist Jonathan Rodden has demonstrated, under this system parties with strong support in cities “waste” more votes in their districts than do parties based in the countryside. Today that translates to Democrats winning lopsided victories in big cities while Republicans win many seats in rural areas by closer—and hence more efficient—margins.
Intentional gerrymandering, which many state legislatures pursued after the pro-Republican wave election of 2010, can greatly compound this rural geographic advantage. This helps explain why, in the 2018 midterm elections, Democratic candidates won more cumulative votes for state legislative chambers in Michigan, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania, but still ended up with a minority of seats.
Fixing these structural forces is a daunting challenge. Shortly before his death in 1995, Daniel Patrick Moynihan noted that “sometime in the next century the United States is going to have to address the question of apportionment in the Senate.” Will that day ever come? Such change seems improbable, if not unfathomable, given that it would require amending or rewriting the Constitution, but the implications of the Senate’s egregious deviation from one person, one vote are starker than ever. Moving the presidency to a popular vote system and enfranchising Washington, D.C., would also likely require constitutional change with prospects that currently seem remote, although less so than changes to the Senate.
Short of constitutional change, there are potential federal statutory fixes to ameliorate our electoral system’s anti-urban bias. These include the use of multi-member districts to increase competitive elections, as the proposed Fair Representation Act would foster, as well as expanding the size of the House, as The New York Times editorial board recently advocated. And taking politics out of legislative district line-drawing holds promise at the state level. The success this month of ballot measures establishing neutral districting commissions in Colorado, Michigan, and Utah, and a nonpartisan state demographer for districting in Missouri, shows that districting reform has broad, bipartisan support. These reforms, like those already at work in Arizona and California, should reduce gerrymandering of state legislative and U.S. House districts, which in the last decade has largely tended to undermine urban voters.
Working within our current system, urban progressives might choose to partner not just with suburbanites, but also with rural voters, hearkening back to the New Deal’s grand coalition between urban progressives and Southern agrarians. On issues like economic development, health care, and opioid abuse, such a coalition seems natural. But it is difficult to see how such a coalition could survive inevitable disagreements on issues like gun safety, just as civil rights eventually drove a wedge through the New Deal coalition.
A final, more immediate solution can be found in the empowerment of cities. Across the country, states and the federal government have been increasingly interfering with local authority, preempting local laws across a dizzying array of policy areas just as cities are stepping up to confront our nation’s most pressing challenges. Localism, for all of its virtues, is a second-best response to a federal and state system that structurally undermines the electoral power of people who live in dense, urban areas. If nothing else, however, urban voters should be able to hold sway within their own cities to pursue the policies they are disadvantaged in promoting in the larger political arena.