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Bringing Congress, Electoral College closer to home

By Staff | Mar 23, 2012

Just about everyone is unhappy with civic affairs in America these days. Congress and many other public institutions are held in low regard. We have turned into a nation of malcontents. Instead of changing the personnel, our usual solution is to attack the institutions. So everyone is out to fix the system.

The National Popular Vote group is promoting a scheme to bypass the Electoral College. Americans Elect, headed by former Governors Christie Whitman (R-NJ) and David Boren (D-OK), hope to overthrow the two-party system by nominating a third party slate of bipartisan candidates.

Gail L. Johnson of Ewing, N.J., has an idea for us to think about as well. She just published Two Years to Democracy: The 2Y2D Plan, a strategy to make both Congress and the Electoral College more representative. The book is available at Amazon.com.

(Raised in Wahpeton, Gail is the daughter of Mildred Johnson, who served on the Board of Higher Education from 1952 to 1966.)

To start out with, Gail points out that the Founding Fathers favored a Congress that interacted effectively with smaller electorates. The Constitution provided for one member of the House of Representatives for every 30,000 citizens, with increases in size left up to Congress following each decennial census.

The system worked fine until Congress came to the 1920 census, when it discovered that urban states would gain a significant number of seats and the rural states would lose. Since none of the rural incumbents wanted to lose their seats, they passed a law in 1929 fixing the number of House members at 435. Freezing the size of the House meant that as the nation’s population grew so did the number of constituents per congressperson.

We now have congressional districts with over 710,000 constituents, a far cry from the more representative 30,000 with which we started. These huge congressional districts have created a number of serious deficiencies.

Gail argues that, “The only possible way a representative can communicate with 710,000 peopleis to spend huge sums of money on mass communications television, direct mail, pollsters, consultants and so forth.”

“The only possible way to raise these huge sums every two years,” she alleges, “is to take large chunks from the special interest groups.”

“They would not be spending the money unless they were going to make a good return on their investment,” she states. “These guys are not patriots supporting a political philosophy.”

To bring congresspersons back into contact with smaller constituencies and to reduce the influence of interest groups, Gail proposes increasing the size of Congress so that each member would represent around 100,000 constituents. That would give us a Congress of nearly 3,000 members. A huge body by any standard. (North Dakota would have seven congresspersons.)

Admitting that this would increase the cost substantially, even after savings in staff and other expenses, she feels the principle is an improved democracy, and you can’t put a price tag on democracy.

But there is more to her case than just restoring a closer relationship between Congress and the people. Because states get one presidential electoral vote for each member of Congress, the increase would enlarge the Electoral College by around 2500 electors, and since Congress is apportioned on the basis of population, bring the election of the president closer to the one-person, one-vote principle.

Normally, we can only handle incremental change in our governmental system, so Gail’s idea is, indeed, a challenging step. She makes us think outside of the box. It is another option for those who want to fix the system.

Omdahl is a UND professor emeritus in political science and a former lieutenant governor of North Dakota.

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