A Landslide Victory for Democrats Is Tempered by America’s Broken Electoral System

The numbers are still coming in as I write this just after the witching hour of Election Night, but Democrats seem poised for one of the biggest midterm landslide victories in modern history. Democrats not only won the House handily, but are poised per current New York Times projections to win the national popular vote for the House by a whopping 7.2% percentage points. In the Senate, millions more Americans will once again cast votes for Democrats than for Republicans—in part because no Republican even made it to the general election in California, the country’s most populous state. Democrats also won seven governorships and flipped seven legislative chambers. Liberal ballot measures passed all over the country, perhaps most importantly those expanding voting rights and creating non-partisan redistricting committees.

In a sane electoral system, such a resoundingly clear result would mean sweeping new powers for the winning party. And to a certain extent it does: the Democratic takeover of the House means the ability to block most Republican legislative priorities as well as to launch investigations into criminal wrongdoing by the President and his allies. And each governorship and state legislature retaken provides the opportunity to undo the gerrymandering and voter suppression rules conservatives euphemistically call their “structural advantages.”

But the victory for Democrats feels underwhelming. That’s partly due to stinging defeats in high-profile races in Florida, Georgia, and Ohio that Democrats had hoped to win, as well as tough Senate losses in states like Missouri and Indiana that Democrats knew were uphill battles but had still hoped to eke out.

But it’s mostly due to the fact that the American electoral system is functionally broken in a way that gives Republicans enormous unearned advantages. Consider this: when Republicans delivered the 2010 “shellacking” that won them a whopping 63 seats in the House, they only won the national popular vote in the House by 6.8 percent. Democrats are poised to outpace that national majority in terms of raw votes, but to only pick up less than forty seats. Most analysts suggest that Democrats begin with a 5-point handicap just to stay even in the nation’s most representative body, which is ludicrously unfair and immoral.

And then, of course, there’s the Senate. Our own Martin Longman and many others have already covered this in depth, but the U.S. Senate no longer has any reason to exist, and only serves to help entrenched interests escape accountability while maximizing partisan rancor and getting in the way of productive solutions to the country’s problems. Originally designed to placate slaveholding states that were less populous (in part because they didn’t count the enslaved workers who actually produced their wealth as people) by giving them equal representative power with less morally wretched non-slave states, the Senate has turned into a distorted mockery of democracy. Wyoming and North Dakota (with less than 700,000 people each) for some reason get the same amount of power in the Senate as California and New York’s combined nearly 60 million people, while whining every day about people from Los Angeles or Brooklyn “telling them how to live.” The injustice is the other way around: rural monochrome states with less population than a mid-sized American city shouldn’t have any business enforcing their peculiar, bubble-driven paranoias on the dynamic and diverse populations of America’s cultural, technological, and agricultural giants. And yet, because of this injustice a deeply unpopular president who was just resoundingly rejected at the ballot box will still be able to rubberstamp his judicial and other appointments without pushback from a corrupted, anti-majoritarian institution.

All of these “structural advantages” Republicans hold will eventually disappear. They’re like dams holding back a rising tide, and the tide is rising faster than conservatives can shore up the dams. Every election cycle there are more progressive millennials and fewer conservative boomers in the electorate (a microcosm of this effect is also changing the Democratic Party as older centrists grudgingly give way to a younger and bolder group of activists and voters who embrace universal rights over incremental, means-tested half measures.) Every election cycle there are fewer angry, Fox News addicted white men to go around. The rising Latino and Asian electorates are flipping states like Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico and now even Arizona and Texas are ever more blue, and it won’t stop with the American Southwest. The census will make a difference; expanding voting rights and anti-gerrymandering efforts will make a difference; simple demographic changes will make a difference; and within a few election cycles there won’t be enough cheating and voter suppression tactics available to Republicans to stem the tide. Especially as the loss of their moderates and the ascendancy of huckster grievance infotainment pushes their electorate and their politicians ever further into extremism.

For now, though, it means that Republicans continue to punch above their actual electoral weight, and Democrats don’t quite make the gains their numerical dominance should dictate in a normal democracy.

But that will change. And Democrats should feel heartened by the whopping rebuke the country has delivered to Trump and all he represents.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.