The Importance of Place

No, I’m not going to pontificate about where people of privilege live and how that location benefits them, true as it is. Rather, I’m going to point out how the patterns of how and where Americans live influences (some might say biases) the entire political system of the United States.

By now, most people who follow U.S. politics know that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by almost three million votes, yet lost the Electoral College by a wide margin – termed “a landslide” by Trump. When the Founding Fathers created the Electoral College, the reason was very simple. They didn’t want Presidential elections decided by the votes in Virginia and Pennsylvania, at least not exclusively by those two states.

What people tend to overlook about the Electoral College is that it reflects a mash-up of the make-up of both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate, that is, the total number of votes represents the total number of representative and senators. While states with greater populations have a greater number of representatives, each state has two senators. Thus, right off the bat, rural and sparsely populated states have an advantage.

The second problem is that, when the Founding Fathers set up the Electoral College, the United States was essentially ninety percent rural. This meant, that from the beginning, state legislatures were dominated by rural interests. While that influence has continually diminished, on the state level, in almost every state, rural lawmakers have an outsized vote. More important, since state legislatures, in all but two states, as I recall, dominate the reapportionment of congressional districts every ten years. Those states with rural populations tend to redistrict with an eye to maintaining the dominance of rural interests.

What has happened in Utah provides a good example of this. When I was working some forty years ago, Utah had two representatives, and one was a Democrat and one a Republican. This wasn’t a one-time thing. It continued for at least a decade, except… when Utah got more people and another Representative, the legislature made sure two of the three seats were Republican. At that time Utah periodically elected Democratic governors. For the past twenty-five years, there haven’t been any. That’s largely because of redistricting. And now, all the representatives and senators are Republicans, despite the fact that Salt Lake City has a Lesbian Democratic mayor. This just might have something to do with the 2011 re-districting that split up Salt Lake City so pieces of that Democratic bastion were included in districts where Democratic voters were outnumbered by Republicans.

Under current law, this is perfectly legal, but that “legality” overlooks two facts, one demographic and the other political.

The demographic factor is that poorer voters, for the most part, tend end up in high population density areas out of economic necessity. This makes shenanigans like re-districting them to minimize their impact much easier, and once that happens, their political power is reduced.

The political factor is that it’s not only expensive to run for political office, but it also requires name recognition, and our current President is a very good example of this. The only practical way for a non-wealthy candidate to gain political office is to work his or her way up the ladder, from city council to state representative to state senator, then U.S. Representative. If you’re in the minority, current redistricting practices make this difficult, and, as in the case of Utah at present, pretty near a practical impossibility. Add to this the fact that people working near the minimum wage level, who tend to lean Democratic usually have less financial resources, and less time to devote to politics.

California is an example of more successful Democratic redistricting, but I’d submit that it only worked there because of the growing wealth of the “newer” entertainment industry, which tends to be more liberal. Without that wealth, the state would likely have remained as it was in the time of Ronald Reagan, and the Democrats in most states can’t muster that of financial support.

So…in a different way… place matters more than is usually considered.

7 thoughts on “The Importance of Place”

  1. John Prigent says:

    I can see the force of your thinking here,but…. I’ve seen many, many complaints from rural and semi-rural areas here in Britain as well as in the US that their interests and needs are ignored because the electoral systems favour the cities. I don’t know what the proper answer is, other than redistributions carried out fairly and frequently to make sure that each seat represents the same number of legal voters. (Yes, we have electoral fraud from multiple votes etc here too.)

    1. Nate says:

      I live in a rural western state in the US and I’m pretty sure that the various complaints of being ignored are both very real and yet not always based on fact. Rural interests completely dominate my state and much like LEM was saying they go even further and divide up the sole urban population base into separate districts to help secure rural control. And yet they still complain about not being listened to. I think that part of it is the distance from our nation’s center of power both physically and culturally. And I think that an even larger part is the perceived harms (sometimes real) that they see done to their communities’ economy by federal organizations that are in charge of vast tracts of federal lands that make up a large portion of western states. But they don’t acknowledge the benefits they see at the same time which, when combined with the restrictions our state has put on city governments to prevent them from acting independently of rural interests, leads urban voters in my state to see the rural voters as trying to drag the whole state back to the beginning of the last century.

      So you have the perception of disenfranchisement on both sides. I have no real knowledge of the particulars in Britain, so all I can add to that is to ask the question: which side of this divide is passing laws to trying and stop the opposing side from casting votes?

      1. In support of what Nate noted, the vast majority of western and rural states actually receive more in federal dollars than their inhabitants pay in taxes. So not only do they have an advantage in voting, but they get more in federal benefits than they pay for… and yet, in general, they’re unhappy.

        1. John Prigent says:

          I can only speak to what I see here in England. The top-size local authorities get their own property tax revenues plus something from the government out of general taxation. Then they allocate the total as hey choose. The continual complaint here is that the lion’s share of that money goes to the areas closest to the top authorities’ HQs. For instance, my county of Sussex is divided into regions, with funds allocated to them by county HQ. Below them are the town and village councils which basically get nothing except by special pleading. Sussex County HQ is almost at the western edge of the county, while my town is about as far away as is possible, right in the corner with two other counties and adjacent to a third one. Somehow the County people always manage to convince themselves that such things as road improvements must be prioritised by proximity to County HQ. So are smaller things – when we last had heavy snowfalls a decade ago the approaches to County HQ and the staff and Councillors’ car parks there were cleared, but the gritters and ploughs never reached here before the snow had melted. And we desperately need some road junction improvements that were put into the pipeline about 25 years ago when traffic began pouring off the motorway at a new junction to use us as a shortcut. But County HQ has decided to ration road improvements to one a year in each region. No, my town still isn’t even on the waiting list, we’re so far from County HQ that we don’t matter at all.

  2. darcherd says:

    One of the arguments being advanced in the current debate around the continued usefulness of the U.S. Electoral College system of selecting a president is that it gives over-representation to sparsely populated, generally rural states. My mother, who lives in California, grouses about the fact that her presidential vote doesn’t count for as much as someone who lives in, say, Wyoming. LEM is absolutely right that the whole “big state / small state” compromise built into the U.S. Constitution via the Electoral College process and limiting each state to only two Senators was to prevent the then-highly populous states of Virginia and Pennsylvania from completely dominating the government.

    Now we find ourselves in the opposite situation, where densely-populated urban states are under-represented. However, if the Electoral College process were completely eliminated in favor of a single, direct nationwide vote for president, rural states and regions would instantly find themselves completely disenfranchised as the urban population now outnumbers the rural by a considerable margin. (The fact that urban citizens tend, on average, to hold more liberal political views than rural citizens should give you a pretty good idea of how likely we are to actually see the Electoral College eliminated any time soon.)

    As far as folks in rural states still feeling like they aren’t being listened to despite being over-represented in the Senate and the Electoral College, I just have to chalk that up to the natural human tendency to regard anyone who disagrees with one as not listening (since one’s own position and arguments are so self-evidently reasonable and right, the only possible reason for disagreement must be due to simply not listening).

    1. John Prigent says:

      I’m just wondering: how does the selection of candidates vary between the US and the UK? Here in Britain we’ve had a history of attempts by the London-dominated party bosses to impose their selected candidates upon constituencies, regardless of local views. This periodically erupts into public view when a constituency party raises merry hell over its preference for a different candidate – possibly not-female, not non-white, not of ambiguous gender, or simply NOT a metropolitan dweller who’ll only visit the constituency when forced to. Do you get the same attempts from national committees to impose their politically-correct metropolitan-dwelling candidates?

      1. State political parties are the ones controlling primary elections and/or party caucuses — those elections/gatherings where members of a political party choose candidates. Also, most states [but not all] require candidates to have a legal residence in their district. National political party officials have no say in who runs in state or federal elections — except for the Presidential elections.

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