O Democracy, Wherefore Art Thou?

Once upon a time, I truly believed that I had a voice in my government, maybe not directly, but certainly through my elected representatives. Even while my preferred candidate in a particular race didn’t always win, I had more than a smidgen of faith that my preferred candidate could win in the near future.

I had little patience for my fellow-citizens’ excuses for not voting. I considered “I’m too busy,” or “My vote doesn’t matter,” to be lousy excuses for eschewing their duty as a citizens. These non-voters were risking the very underpinnings of democracy with this irresponsible behavior! Only confinement (be it hospital or jail) and death were acceptable excuses. Imagine, if we all decided our vote didn’t matter!

And yet, recently, my passion as a true believer is flailing. I have a new sense of apathy exacerbated by an ever-filling mailbox of messages urging me to sign petitions and contact my Congressional representatives to help sway their votes in favor of an issue. I’m confronted daily by the futility of my participation in our democracy. That’s because the men who represent me in Congress were not elected by my votes, don’t need my votes to win again, and ergo, don’t care about my opinions.

My congressional district has been drawn so its current occupant (or one with similar leanings) can win even if all the progressive voters in the district vote against him. In fact, he doesn’t need any votes from my urban area since the district has been drawn to run from San Marcos to south of Fort Worth, including Killeen, Fort Hood, parts of the hill country and only a smattering of Austinites. In other words, this man from bustling Weatherford is guaranteed a conservative vote majority from the largely rural Congressional District 25. So, while cattle ranchers in Lampasas may be happy with their representation, I’ve been drawn out of an opportunity to cast a meaningful vote. This is what political gerrymandering looks like.

The U.S. Supreme Court has said that racial gerrymandering is unconstitutional, but, thus far, its next best surrogate, political gerrymandering, has escaped court review. That will change this term when the Court takes up a case that brings political gerrymandering squarely before them. Ironically, the principle of “one person, one vote,” will come down to the vote of one man, Justice Kennedy. As the swing vote on voting rights, he will decide upon the constitutionality of a process that allows candidates to pick their voters instead of the other way around.

Yet, while gerrymandering of any type is an outright assault on democratic principles, in my opinion, our method of choosing Senators – two per state – seems to strike a bigger blow to democracy. Unfortunately, the election of senators — a tragic compromise to buy off the smaller states — is baked into the Constitution and off-limits to a judicial fix.  Proportional representation based on population in both House and Senate was the original goal of George Washington, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton, among other delegates to the Constitutional Convention who sought to create a strong national government. As powerful as their voices were, the delegates of small states threatened to walk out of the convention over that proposal.

Accordingly, the convention adopted a split-the-difference compromise that most delegates would swallow, i.e., proportional representation for the House based on population, but equal representation in the Senate wherein each State legislature selected two senators (later amended in 1913 to be elected by voters of each state). Allowing the states to maintain some control of the legislative process through the Senate was key to the Constitution’s ratification by the states.

But the compromise that birthed a nation packs a bigger wallop today than in 1787, when states like Texas and California were unimaginable. The smallest state, Tennessee, had a population of about 35,000, while the largest, Virginia, claimed 691,000, about 20 times greater. Compare that with today’s Wyoming with a population of 586,000, while California, with almost 40 million people is 68 times greater. So, when a citizen of Wyoming contacts one of their senators, there’s a higher chance that citizen’s opinion will matter to that Senator, compared to the possibilities for a voter in California or Texas, with a population of 28 million.

In fact, Wyoming has 262,719 registered voters, about the same number of people who live in Laredo, Texas. Conceivably, a Wyoming senator could know every voter in the state – or at least a member of their family! In contrast, when I’m asked to write my senators about abortion issues, health care, judicial appointments, taxation, gender equality, etc., I have to choke back a silent scream: “I am nobody to them!!” Actually, instead of sending anything to Senators Cornyn and Cruz, I might as well send a missive to Mars!!

And the situation is not going to get any fairer. Rural states are shrinking, as deaths outpace births and young people are abandoning rural life in search of better opportunities. Yet, their representation in the Senate will remain constant no matter the Census, resulting in an over representation of rural, conservative interests in a country that is largely urban and progressive.

The internet seems to be the key to understanding the disparity between rural and urban attitudes.  It allows for us to have friends on the other side of the planet, pay bills without a stamp, run a business at home in our pajamas, or read books without ever visiting a book store or library. The more we change our habitual ways of doing things, the easier it gets for us to embrace novelty and new information.

Yet, rural America has much less internet access and seems to be standing still amidst the digital revolution. They don’t see the world through the wide eyes of Google, don’t know anyone who is LGBT, needs an abortion, or is trying to escape the cycle of poverty. Successors of the Luddites who protested change some 400 years ago, they are, in effect, holding us hostage to their uninformed and short-sighted ways. Their short list of political interests include having guns to kill critters that threaten the chicken coop, ostracizing anyone who doesn’t look like them, and making sure their crop subsidies (corporate welfare) keep coming. Their suspicions about government (except for its aforementioned crop subsidy system) means they oppose most everything else government could do to improve the lives of the rest of their countrymen and women.

The unfortunate reality is that we are stuck with a government that gives folks in Wyoming and other small or rural states more than their share of representation in the Senate. As much as I wish otherwise, I realize it’s crazy to think that senatorial allocation could ever be realigned so that it more realistically reflects our evolution to a more urban America. A constitutional amendment would never pass Congress, since the small and rural states would block it just as they did in 1787. And no one wants another civil war – certainly not any of us urbanites. We’re too involved in living our busy, interesting, and diverse lives. Did anyone say “pumpkin spice latte?!”

I’ll try to content myself with the fact that I’m not living in a dictatorship, or Wyoming, for that matter. But, I liked believing that my vote and my voice mattered. I miss that.

So, where’s that email address for Mars?

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About nowandthenadays

Observer of life who writes about Austin, women's issues, history, and politics. I retired as a Texas Assistant Attorney General after almost 40 years in state government in May, 2013.
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