These two charts are from The Measure of a Nation: How to Regain America’s Competitive Edge and Boost Our Global Standing by Howard Steven Friedman. Two charts do not prove a point, but it provokes some thought that two of the problems in American politics — voter apathy and the lack of contact between elected officials and citizens — may be linked.
In the first chart, the United States bottoms out in voter participation.
A rallying cry in some political circles fears that the U.S. will become like Europe. In voter participation, we could use some of that Europeanization. Americans are even about 20% lower than our neighbor Canada in voter turnout. It is a pitiful performance by a country that is supposed to be a model for democracy around the world. Well, we aren’t a model any longer with this kind of participation.
The second chart suggests what one of the problems may be. Also interesting is the position of Korea, which shares a low voter turnout and the next highest disproportionate number of people per representative.
Having one Congressmember per every 580,000 people guarantees that most people are never going to meet one of their elected federal officials. Yet it is really worse than what the chart shows. The 580,000 figure includes senators. In a place like Wyoming, with a population of 568,000, the residents have a chance to connect with a representative and two senators. That puts Wyoming in line with the other countries as it has one national representative per 190,000 people.
When it comes to a larger state like California, the senators hardly matter as conduits to the people. It is only the elite few who ever get to meet a senator. Members of the House are the ones who interact with the voters. Take away all the senators nationally and the ration of national representatives to people jumps to 712,000. That is about where it is for Californians too.
Increasing the House by three times its current size would bring a lot more interaction between the people and elected federal officials. Would a House of Representatives with 1,300 members be too unwieldy? Perhaps, but at least Americans would have a chance to directly meet with their Congressmembers again. At 580,000 Americans per member of Congress, that is clearly unwieldy.