Break Up the States?

In the wake of the recent election fiasco in Florida, many people have rediscovered the inequities of the Electoral College. It turns out that individual votes in small states count for more than those in large states. The U.S. Senate is also apportioned geographically, which raises the same concerns.

The difference in weighting of votes bothers people in more populous states now, just as it did when the Electoral College was created in 1787. Wouldn’t it be more democratic, they ask, to have the Electoral College apportioned by population? For that matter, shouldn’t both houses of Congress reflect population differences?

Opponents of Electoral College reform commonly respond that the federal government should not represent only the preferences of the great cities. They think the mixture of geographic and population apportionment safeguards smaller communities’ important interests. It’s an argument as old as the oldest state constitution.

In fact, Virginians eventually found a way to resolve the argument. Virginia’s first constitution, written in 1776, incorporated geographic apportionment. Each county had two members in the state’s dominant legislative body, the House of Delegates. Thomas Jefferson objected to this system, but people from the small counties that benefited from it resisted Jefferson’s reforms.

So for years nothing was done. But in 1825, a future president, John Tyler, wrote a set of resolutions for his community, tiny James City County in Tidewater Virginia, proposing a compromise between the 1776 system and Jefferson’s proposals. James City would always resist population apportionment, he said. Yet there was a readily available method that the more populous counties could use to redress the imbalance: subdivision. James City had never opposed creation of a new Virginia county, Tyler wrote, and it never would.

If the people in the counties whose populations were growing wanted to improve their relative positions in the House of Delegates, all they had to do was divide their counties. Each newly created county, like all the other counties, would receive its two members of the House of Delegates, and if enough people chose to divide their counties, the supposed malapportionment would be eliminated.

Suppose the same reform were to be applied at the federal level. Large states stand today in precisely the same position as the growing Virginia counties in 1825. While states such as Delaware and Wyoming have virtually static populations, and thus every incentive to block Electoral College reform, many large states are magnets of immigration, from other states and from abroad. Why not, then, divide the larger states and reduce or eliminate their current Electoral College and Senate disadvantages?

If large states such as California and Texas were each broken into a number of states, people who live there would receive two additional senators — and thus two additional electors — for each new state. The division of Texas into four or five states, and of California into eight or ten, would go far in their cases toward resolving the problem.

And it is not so impractical as it seems. First, there are precedents: Kentucky and Maine were created by subdivision of large states, Virginia and Massachusetts. Second, the states created would still be larger than, say, the small states of the East Coast, such as Delaware, Rhode Island or Vermont. But the vote of a person who lived on the West Coast would come close to counting as much in the Electoral College and Senate as that of someone in the East.

This solution also offers other advantages. In 1789, when the federal Constitution took effect, the population of the United States was approximately 1 per cent of what it is today. Today’s skyrocketing expense of standing even for lowly public offices and the apparent futility of political involvement owe much to the fact that many states’ populations simply have outgrown republican government.

If Texas were divided into eight or nine Maine-sized parts, citizen involvement would be facilitated — and, through more frequent realization of any individual citizen’s policy preferences, even rewarded. Voting, lobbying, campaigning, running for office, studying politics and all the other attributes of political life would have more consequence than they do now.

An average individual can make a difference in North Dakota that she could never hope to make now in enormous Pennsylvania. The 30-second television spot, a staple in our mega-states, could be replaced by New Hampshire-style personal politics. Money-driven politics could make way for broader democracy.

The Electoral College’s inequities, the growing cost of entering the political game and the decay of citizen involvement have a common old solution: subdivision. John Tyler would approve.

K. R. Constantine Gutzman teaches history at John Jay College, City University of New York, and is a writer for the History News Service.

January, 2001