Argument: rural American voters are being disenfranchised

A member of the Hoover Institution argues rural Americans are losing their right to self-governance:

With each passing election, rural and small town Americans have ever less influence on their state and national governments and ever declining control over the governance of their own communities. Their lives are increasingly controlled from distant state capitals and from the even more distant Washington, D.C., by politicians with little incentive to pay attention to their country cousins. To some extent, their disenfranchisement is the inevitable result of a century of urbanization and economic centralization. But the erosion of self-governance in rural America is also the result of a generally well intentioned but simplistic understanding of democracy and the associated elimination of institutional protections of local democratic governance.

Two ideas have been central to this effective disenfranchisement of rural America. First, that one person/one vote is an inviolable principle of democratic government under the United States Constitution. Second, that the winners of elections owe allegiance only to those who voted for them, no matter how close the margin of victory…

The reality is that rural communities have experienced a declining influence on state governance ever since reapportionment was first mandated in the 1960s. Many will say that this is as it should be. Rural and small town voters constitute minorities in every state, and minorities are supposed to lose in a democracy. But that is the same argument made against the Electoral College, given the possibility that a candidate who wins the popular vote might lose in the Electoral College, and it is an argument that also would condemn the much greater counter-majoritarian nature of the U.S. Senate.

Different and diverse majorities in each state are combined in the U.S. Senate to pursue national policies that are truly national and not just what will serve the interests of the nine states in which the majority of the nation’s population resides. There is no similar safeguard at the state level for different and diverse majorities in small town and rural communities that happen to constitute the red regions of the blue states—though there once was.

Prior to the 1964 United States Supreme Court decision in Reynolds v. Sims, most state legislatures included one house apportioned on the basis of population and a second chamber apportioned on the basis of counties or other geographical regions. Many of the former had not been reapportioned for decades, leaving growing urban areas with less representation per capita than rural regions. On the basis of the principle of one person/one vote, the Court found that the failure of most states to regularly reapportion their lower houses put them in violation of the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment.

The first thing I thought of when reading this argument was that this is a long-standing tension in American history. Thus, we have mechanisms in national government that are meant to limit some of this. From the beginning, the interests of the more urban North were pitted against the interests of the more rural South. These issues still remain even though the geography has changed since then in several important ways: there are plenty of rural areas in mid-America as well as in the West and we have a broad middle category, actually the most populous space for Americans to live, called the suburbs. Additionally, party lines have shifted.

But, we could take this in another direction and think more creatively about how to select elected officials. Huffman argues the Supreme Court limited the voice of rural voters in states when it went to a system of officials per population rather than by geographical boundaries. What might happen if we went to a system where districts were drawn only within a single geographic group: cities, suburbs, and more rural areas? Huffman seems to be suggesting that the interests of a city-dweller in Chicago or Atlanta may be much similar to each other than representatives across northern Illinois where there districts can cover all three geographic types. Suburban legislators across metropolitan regions or states might have similar interests compared to those who represent other types of geographies.

I just have to ask: would conservatives be arguing for the voters in rural areas if it were primarily Democrats in rural areas as opposed to Republicans?

Sociology class on social change leads to amendment to Illinois law

I noted this story last year but here is an update: Illinois passed a bill last year that originated in a sociology class at Northern Illinois University.

Sophomore students at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy (IMSA) in Aurora were given an opportunity Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2012, to hear firsthand how doing their homework could lead to state-wide social change.

State Representative Kay Hatcher, NIU Sociology instructor Jack King and NIU student Gayle Deja-Schultz shared the story of how a class project at NIU’s Naperville campus led to a 2011 amendment to House Bill 180, The Let Them Rest in Peace Act, which further restricts protesting during funeral and memorial services.

However, the impact of the course taught by King, Sociology 392: Organizing for Social Change, extends beyond state legislature.

The NIU project was the inspiration for EnACT, a new IMSA program that teaches students how to address legislative issues and how to advocate change in a hands-on learning approach.

I would guess this is an educational experience these sociology students won’t forget.

Read more details about how the bill was signed into law on August 14, 2011 here. The key part of the process seems to be that one of the students had interned for an Illinois House member and this started the ball rolling beyond the class. The power of social networks…

Are there other sociology classes that have led to similar change?

American female legislators are more effective than men

A new study in the American Journal of Political Science suggests females are better lawmakers than men:

according to a forthcoming study in the American Journal of Political Science—because women also rank as the most effective lawmakers in the land.

The research is the first to compare the performance of male and female politicians nationally, and it finds that female members of the House rout their male counterparts in both pulling pork and shaping policy. Between 1984 and 2004, women won their home districts an average of $49 million more per year than their male counterparts (a finding that held regardless of party, geography, committee position, tenure in office, or margin of victory). The spending jump was found within districts, too, when women moved into seats previously occupied by men, and the cash was for projects across the spectrum, not just “women’s issues.”

A similar performance gap showed up in policy: Women sponsored more bills (an average of three more per Congress), cosponsored more bills (an average of 26 more per Congress), and attracted a greater number of cosponsors than their colleagues who use the other restroom. These new laws driven by women were not only enacted—they were popular.

Two interesting findings. Some might argue these days whether pork is a good measure of “effectiveness” but sponsoring and passing laws seems pretty important.

The next question is why this is the case. Here is what the study concludes:

So are women just innately better politicians? Probably not. More likely, say Berry and Anzia, female politicians are better than men because, as in other fields, they simply have to be. More than 90 years after the first woman was elected to Congress, female politicians still hold less than a fifth of all national seats, and do only slightly better at the state level. In order to overcome lingering bias against women in leadership positions, those women must work that much harder to be seen as equals.

The authors seem to think this effect will go away in coming decades as more women are elected to office. One way to test this idea now that female American legislators have to be better in order to get elected to office is to look at similar measures of effectiveness in national legislatures with greater proportions of women. In countries where the number of men and women are more equal, is there still an effectiveness gap? Did other nations experience a similar pattern as women increased in numbers in the legislature?

It will be interesting to watch the discussion about these findings.