Friday, May 28, 2010

Voting for the Weather

The first decennial census in the Unite States took place in 1790. The results of that count were used then, as they still are, to apportion congressional seats and to define congressional districts of roughly the same size, emphasis on roughly: people will settle in clusters and drawing perfect boundaries isn’t always practical. That year, for instance the third congressional district of Virginia had a population of 30,145, the fourth district of Maryland 53,913. The average population of a congressional district was 33,000 people. Slavery existed in those days; slaves weren’t counted until 1850. That’s a dark subject but not central to my point today. The gross numbers are.

In attempts to make that eighteenth century situation personal, I toted up the population of my current neighborhood, the so-called Grosse Pointes in Michigan (some four communities). These had a population of 44,283 in the 2000 census. Now I can reach the boundaries of this area on foot in any direction in under an hour-and-half. The major centers of this area, places where people might engage in political action, are a good deal closer. If this were a farming community and therefore much more dispersed, reaching its centers, its markets, would take a good deal more time, but not that much more—and I’d have the use of a horse. The congressional district, therefore would seem to be at the right scale, certainly accessible. I’d be a cipher, to be sure, 1 of 44,000, but, well, that is a graspable segment of the collective; adults would be roughly half of that number today, probably less than a third in 1790.

Our current congressional district, the thirteenth, had a 2000 population of 662,563. We moved here from the fifth district of Minnesota, where the population in 2000 had been 614,935. The average congressional district’s population is today 646,000—omitting the very thinly populated states where the districts are much bigger. Now one voice in 33,000 (the 1790 situation) is more easily heard than one voice in 646,000. To give it some magnitude, the modern voice is muted by a factor of 20! If we view this ratio from the perspective of the candidate for office, it is at least 20 times more costly for the candidate to be heard—meaning that it will cost a great deal more money today than it did in the eighteenth century. Sticking to averages, and comparing the costs of sending a single letter to every person in each district (okay, even babies get letters), it would cost to $14,190 to reach a 1790-sized district—and $277,780 to reach a district today. That’s in today’s dollars and using today’s postage for a first-class letter.

To give this some visual impact, I include here a graphic that shows the two districts in a bar chart, with my own Grosse Pointes placed in the middle and colored true blue.

Now let me add a few more observations. The Minnesota-fifth and the Michigan-thirteenth are alike. Both are urban centers where our location was or is on the edge. In both one party rules and elections are decided in primaries—when they are contested at all. Our representatives must deal with complexities the eighteenth century couldn’t even dream of—such as (to grab wildly at random) nuclear proliferation, stem cell research, and petroleum floods of whole coast-lines. The ability of the average person to understand these issues in a comprehensive way has probably diminished by more than twenty-fold. The huge numbers imply a great mixing of many different kinds of people, the vast majority of whom are ill-educated. Here I might add, parenthetically, that the folks in Montana (whose single district has 902,000 inhabitants) or the folks in South Dakota (with one district of 755,000 people) are heard even more faintly.

These are some, but by no means all, of the structural underpinnings of a system where democratic politics absolutely demands vast amounts of money, where an Electoral Industry is active at all times, where fundraising is continuous, and where the issues must be abstracted to such an extent, even to be heard, that they shrink to almost meaningless tokens. Any feeling of genuine participation in public governance, already fairly minimal in a district of, say, 44,000 people, is altogether lost—unless we make it an active and semi-professional avocation. The touch of one-six-hundred-and-forty-six-thousandth of the population is not exactly felt by a representative. Intermediate structures, therefore, develop to bring pressure to bear. These groups are not elected; they are self-appointed; and they also require money to maintain. Here I am showing straightforward quantitative descriptions of the system; and the description omits all of the detail. But what such data show, at the bottom of the cup, is the reason for uproars of discontent—and also why these voices often sound so ignorant. Voting for the weather may seem a much more rational activity, these days, than voting for people who, supposedly, represent our interests.


  1. Very nice post, bringing some interesting perspective to what seems like a growing sense of alianation from our elected governing bodies.

    I'd never really thought about the less populous states having only a single congressional district. They're usually highlighted for having two senators despite their low populations.

  2. Having read and digested this information with its clever title, I am wondering if my vote against hurricanes in the Gulf this sommer might not have the same result as the votes I cast in primary and national elections...

  3. I'll cast a vote for a light hurricane season!