The Midterm Election Showed Why We Need More States

By: Tho Bishop
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The midterm elections continue to play themselves out in various races throughout the country. The fight going on in Florida and Arizona over newly discovered ballots brings to mind the line attributed to Joseph Stalin, “It’s not the people who vote that count, it’s the people who count the votes.”

While it may be too soon to come up with official vote totals for a few senate races, there is one election night conclusion we can be certain about: America needs more states.

While the idea may seem may seem radical, smaller political units are the best way of addressing some of the growing cultural divides that the media loves to talk about. Some of these divisions are illustrated quite starkly when we look at a county by county break down of various statewide elections.

For example, New York does a great job showing the difference between the political preferences of urban and rural voters. Though the state is one of the strongest havens for the Democratic party, Governor Andrew Cuomo only won 15 of the state’s 63 counties in his successful re-election bid. Without significant change, rural parts of New York will always have very little say in the direction of the state government due to how small their population is relative to the boroughs of New York City.

The political dominance of NYC is of course also true in primaries. Letitia James, who was elected this week as New York’s Attorney General, won the Democratic primary in spite of coming in third place in every New York county north of Westchester and Rockland.

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(Source: New York Times)

Of course it’s not always true that cities dominant state politics. The Georgia governor’s race, for example, saw Republican Brian Kemp defeat Democrat Stacey Abrams in spite of the latter’s strong support in the metro Atlanta area (though Abrams is pushing a legal challenge to the result.) The cultural divide in that race goes beyond rural vs. urban voters, but also demographic representation. The majority of counties Abrams won were those with majority black populations. Similarly, the non-urban blue counties in the Texas governor’s race were all areas with Hispanic-majority populations.

While it’s fair to question whether one party is actually better equipped to serve the interests of one demographic or another, the desire for communities to have greater political self-determination is understandable.

Ludwig von Mises wrote at length about the struggles of being an ethnic or cultural minority living under an interventionist government. We see these concerns played out in current topics such as the push for community policing as a means to try and address police brutality in minority communities.

There are other practical advantages to smaller political units, beyond political self-determination. Research by Mark Thornton, George S. Ford, and Marc Ulrich has found a correlation between constituency size and government spending. As Ryan McMaken summarized in an article on what the US can learn from Swiss federalism:

As Thornton et al. conclude:

[T]he evidence is very suggestive that constituency size provides an explanation for much of the trend, or upward drift in government spending, because of the fixed-sized nature of most legislatures. Potentially, constituency size could be adjusted to control the growth of government.

Other factors mentioned by Thornton, et al. and others include:

  • Large constituencies increase the cost of running campaigns, and thus require greater reliance on large wealth interests for media buys and access to mass media. The cost of running a statewide campaign in California, for example, is considerably larger than the cost of running a statewide campaign in Vermont. Constituencies spread across several media markets are especially costly.
  • Elected officials, unable to engage a sizable portion of their constituencies rely on large interest groups claiming to be representative of constituents.
  • Voters disengage because they realize their vote is worth less in larger constituent groups.
  • Voters disengage because they are not able to meet the candidate personally.
  • Voters disengage because elections in larger constituencies are less likely to focus on issues that are of personal, local interest to many of the voters.
  • The ability to schedule a personal meeting with an elected official is far more difficult in a large constituency than a small one.
  • Elected officials recognize that a single voter is of minimal importance in a large constituency, so candidates prefer to rely on mass media rather than personal interaction with voters.
  • Larger constituent groups are more religiously, ethnically, culturally, ideologically, and economically diverse. This means elected officials from that constituent group are less likely to share social class, ethnic group, and other characteristics with a sizable number of their constituents.
  • Larger constituencies often mean the candidate is more physically remote, even when the candidate is at “home” and not at a distant parliament or congress. This further reduces access.

In these ways changes to the size of states wouldn’t only grant voters a greater say in what goes on in their state capitols, but could potentially lead to a change in how the Federal government operates. Smaller states would diminish the significant advantages incumbent senators enjoy due to the costs of running state-wide campaigns in expensive media markets like those found in California or Florida, and could even diminish some of the power national parties have on the higher chamber.

Of course none of these structural changes will help solve the issues America faces without an ideological change in favor of free markets and individual liberty. Still, at a time when Americans are questioning all sorts of political norms, it is worthwhile to question the physical size of political units in the US.

So as we prepare for several news cycles fixated on various electoral lawsuits, the best solution is the simplest one: let them both win.

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