The Corner

Politics & Policy

The ‘House Popular Vote’ Doesn’t Measure the Health of Our Republic

(Larry Downing/Reuters)

As the House results come in, you may hear some talk on television and online about something called the “House popular vote” — in other words, the sum total of Democratic and Republican votes for members of the House of Representatives. If you’re not familiar with the term, there’s a good reason.

There’s no such thing — in the American system — as a “House popular vote.”

The reason why some on the left are trying to invent the term and make it meaningful in American politics is that there is a growing theory that the Republicans are using a combination of the Electoral College, the Senate, and House gerrymandering to cement “minority rule.” Here’s Ezra Klein with a tweet-length version of the argument:

Later in the thread, Klein links to a much longer column that argues that America may be on the verge of political instability in part because Republicans have repeatedly gained and maintained power in spite of “winning” with various kinds of popular-vote minorities (including a minority of the presidential popular vote and a minority of the Senate popular vote).

While I agree with Klein that there is growing leftist resentment at our constitutional structure, I strongly disagree that various “popular vote” disparities represent an injustice. In fact, given that no single American election is contested or won under a national popular vote, the statistic isn’t all that meaningful as a measure American representation.

Simply put, no sentient American presidential candidate runs a race to win the popular vote. While we can presume that landslide elections would be unaffected by a national popular-vote strategy, we can’t know how any given recent close election would have played out if the candidates were simply trying to amass national votes. The strategies would have been entirely different. To say that Republicans are less legitimate because they didn’t “win” a contest they weren’t trying to win is a bit bizarre.

That’s even more true of House races — a series of hundreds of different contests where progressives can run up huge, lopsided majorities in progressive districts and still lose far more closely contested races not just in gerrymandered districts but also in red states across the nation. If a progressive wins 80-20 in an urban district, and a different progressives loses 60-40 in an exurban district, the Democrats are not entitled to both seats because they have more total votes.

Moreover, nobody — absolutely nobody — is trying to win a “House popular vote.”

Yes, there are some states with extreme gerrymanders, and gerrymandering plays a role at the margins, but the much greater problem (for progressives) is their entirely voluntary decision to live piled on top of each other in urban neighborhoods. The New York Times’ Alec MacGillis — writing just before the 2016 election — argued that emphasis on gerrymandering “overlooks an even bigger problem for their party. Democrats today are sorting themselves into geographic clusters where many of their votes have been rendered all but superfluous, especially in elections for the Senate, House and state government.”

“This has long been a problem for the party,” he said, “but it has grown worse in recent years.” There’s a “basic cultural element” to this sorting. “Democrats just don’t want to live where they’d need to live to turn more of the map blue.”

That’s not the GOP’s fault.

As for the Senate, it was designed from the ground-up to represent states, not the national popular will.

Finally, for all the talk of American democracy under threat, let’s not forget a fundamental, salient fact. In each race in which you actually cast a vote (whether it’s House or Senate in the midterms or to determine your state’s electors in a presidential year), it is still absolutely true that the candidate who gets the most votes wins. In those races, the popular vote always prevails.

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