Tag Archives: Harvard Law Review

An Immodest “Modest Proposal”

Talk about “thinking outside the box”!

Ever since the 2016 election, there has been increasing concern voiced about the blatantly undemocratic aspects of American governance–the Electoral College, of course, and the enormous impact of money in politics–but also the fact that the “majority” party in control of the Senate represents about fifteen million fewer people than the “minority” party.

Changing these inequities through the constitutional amendment process would be a fool’s errand. Given the political environment, and the difficulty of the process, it ain’t gonna happen.

We could work around the need for constitutional changes, however, if we followed the advice of a recent article in the Harvard Law Review. As Vox explains,

An unsigned note, entitled “Pack the Union: A Proposal to Admit New States for the Purpose of Amending the Constitution to Ensure Equal Representation” and published in the Harvard Law Review, offers an entirely constitutional way out of this dilemma: Add new states — a lot of new states — then use this bloc of states to rewrite the Constitution so that the United States has an election system “where every vote counts equally.”

To create a system where every vote counts equally, the Constitution must be amended. To do this, Congress should pass legislation reducing the size of Washington, D.C., to an area encompassing only a few core federal buildings and then admit the rest of the District’s 127 neighborhoods as states. These states — which could be added with a simple congressional majority — would add enough votes in Congress to ratify four amendments: (1) a transfer of the Senate’s power to a body that represents citizens equally; (2) an expansion of the House so that all citizens are represented in equal-sized districts; (3) a replacement of the Electoral College with a popular vote; and (4) a modification of the Constitution’s amendment process that would ensure future amendments are ratified by states representing most Americans.

The Constitution provides for the admission of new states through an ordinary act of Congress requiring a simple majority vote. If it weren’t for a different provision–one that prevents new states from being “carved out” of existing ones unless the legislature of the existing state consents– we might just root for the folks who are trying to divide California into three states.

Since it’s unlikely that California’s legislature– or that of any other state–would agree to be split, the alternative is to chop up the District of Columbia. That gets around the constitutional problem because Washington, DC, isn’t a state.

Similarly, the Constitution effectively prohibits amendments that eliminate Senate malapportionment. The Harvard note proposes getting around this problem by transferring the Senate’s powers to another body. “The Senate’s duties,” it argues, “could be changed without modifying its composition.

Details aside, however, the wild thing about this Harvard Law Review proposal is that it is absolutely, 100 percent constitutional. The Constitution provides that “new states may be admitted by the Congress into this union,” but it places no limits on the size of a state either in terms of population or in terms of physical space.

It turns out that there is a long and ignoble history of partisans admitting new states in order to give their party an added advantage in the Senate. Vox notes that In 1864, Republicans admitted Nevada — at the time a desert wasteland with a few thousand residents — in order to give the GOP two extra Senate seats.

We have two Dakotas because those same Republicans celebrated their 1888 victory by dividing the Republican Dakota Territory into two states, in order to get four senators rather than two. And thanks to gerrymandering, each rural vote is worth 1 1/3 of each urban vote.

As the article concludes:

So let’s be frank. The Harvard note’s proposal is ridiculous, but it is no more ridiculous than a system where the nearly 40 million people in California have no more Senate representation than the 578,759 people in Wyoming. As the Harvard note says of its own pitch, “radical as this proposal may sound, it is no more radical than a nominally democratic system of government that gives citizens widely disproportionate voting power depending on where they live.”

Just because we’ve always done it that way doesn’t mean it makes sense.