The Slatest

The Real Threat to American Democracy Isn’t Russia. It’s the Right.

Murray Drohman, 35, of Golden, Colorado fills out his ballot at the Jefferson County Fairgrounds on November 8, 2016 in Golden, Colorado.
Marc Piscotty/Getty Images

A week ago, Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, brought some attention to a growing threat to the integrity of our elections. “[B]y 2040 or so,” he tweeted, “70 percent of Americans will live in 15 states. Meaning 30 percent will choose 70 senators. And the 30% will be older, whiter, more rural, more male than the 70 percent.” Two days later, the Washington Post’s Philip Bump ran a check on the numbers, citing an analysis of Census Bureau projections from the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service. “In broad strokes,” he wrote, “Ornstein is correct.”

[In 2040] eight states will have just under half of the total population of the country, 49.5 percent, according to the Weldon Cooper Center’s estimate. The next eight most populous states will account for an additional fifth of the population, up to 69.2 percent — meaning that the 16 most populous states will be home to about 70 percent of Americans.

[…]Ornstein’s … point is clear: 30 percent of the population of the country will control 68 percent of the seats in the U.S. Senate. Or, more starkly, half the population of the country will control 84 percent of those seats. His tweet goes further, suggesting that the demographics of those states will differ from the larger states, as well, and, therefore, so will their politics.

In short, beyond holding an advantage in the House even before the recent wave of Republican gerrymandering, the most conservative regions of the country—places older, more white, more male, and more rural than the country at large—have and will continue to hold a lock on the United States Senate that will grow ever more absurd as the the country’s actual population centers grow, a situation that grants them a veto over legislation that the majority of Americans might want, and the power to shape or shrink government programs and initiatives disproportionately needed by women and minorities living in less conservative states.


The composition of the Senate additionally shapes the composition of the Supreme Court, a body whose importance has been brought into relief by the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh and the prospect of a conservative majority on the bench that could last decades. The project of that majority will be advancing constitutional originalism, a perspective on jurisprudence aimed—whenever it suits the conservative movement—at aligning policies impacting Americans in the present with the preferences of elites who represented around six percent of the population over two centuries ago.

The phrase “minority rule” is going to be written and said a lot in the coming years, and not just because the election of two popular-vote-losing presidents so far this century has given lie to the idea that every citizen’s vote matters equally. (A vote cast in Wyoming mathematically counts nearly four times as much in presidential elections as a vote cast by a Californian). As Slate’s Jamelle Bouie wrote earlier this month, Trump’s presidency and much of the rhetoric that’s come with it, including baseless allegations of mass voter fraud, has made transparent the right’s desire ”to reverse-engineer a white electorate large enough to secure their own power,” as the nation moves inexorably towards becoming a majority-minority state. That’s the impetus behind many years now of implementing new voting restrictions and ID laws aimed at disenfranchising African-Americans.


In June, the Supreme Court’s conservative majority ruled in favor of a law in Ohio that deregistered hundreds of thousands of disproportionately poor and African-American voters for not voting in recent elections and for failing to mail back a card certifying their address. Other states are now permitted to do the same. The lawsuit against the state was brought by a man who discovered he had been deregistered after staying home in 2012. From NPR:

The challenge to Ohio’s law was brought by a software engineer named Larry Harmon, who usually votes only in presidential elections. In 2012, he didn’t like the Obama-Romney choice, and so he stayed home. And when he went to vote a couple of years later, against a ballot initiative about marijuana legalization, he found he was no longer registered. He had been purged from the rolls, because he hadn’t voted in two consecutive elections, nor had he sent back a postcard the state sent out to confirm that his address had not changed.

Harmon has lived at the same address for more than 16 years but doesn’t ever remember receiving such a letter. So he sued the state, contending there are lots of other ways to confirm an address, including checking property records, tax forms, and drivers’ licenses. “I earned the right to vote,” said the navy veteran. “Whether I use it or not is up to my personal discretion. They don’t take away my right to buy a gun if I don’t buy a gun.”

Most Americans aren’t yet troubled by this. While 65 percent of Americans believe in establishing the popular vote as the method for electing presidents and 66 percent express justified concern over the influence the wealthy and corporations have over our elections according to a recent survey by the Public Religion Research Institute, only 38 percent of the public agrees that eligible voters being denied the vote is a major problem with our electoral system.

But it is, in fact, a growing problem, and the Democratic Party should be doing more to increase the salience of the issue in addition to pushing reforms that would equalize the balance of power, including the crafting of a new voting rights act, ditching the Electoral College via interstate compact, and, when next they hold Congress, eliminating the filibuster and adding a new state or two, starting with D.C., to the Senate. The alternative is the slow, steady collapse of American democracy at our own hands, not Vladimir Putin’s.

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