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Election 2014: Voice of the people is muzzled by political realities

Sometime this evening, when most of the votes have been counted, someone will utter the words, “The American people have spoken,” and everyone will pretend that it is true. Reality, though, is a bit more complicated because, when it comes to congressional elections, most voters are only screaming from the sidelines, not playing in the game.

I’m not talking merely about those who choose not to vote, I’m talking about the vast majority of Americans who live in congressional districts where their vote does not count for much because either Democrats or Republicans are so dominant that there is little doubt about who the winner will be. Their choices have been foreordained by the legislators or redistricting commissioners who drew the district lines.

In some states, the way the lines get drawn has such a skewed effect that the will of the people gets subverted. In the 2012 election, for example, Republicans won barely more than 50% of the total votes cast in House races in Ohio, but they took 12 of the state’s 16 congressional seats. The same phenomenon happened in Pennsylvania, where votes were split almost evenly between parties, but the GOP walked away with 13 of the state’s 18 House seats. In North Carolina, where Democrats cast the most total votes, Republicans still won nine seats to Democrats’ four.

As outrageous as it may be, gerrymandering is hardly the only element that distorts the people’s voice. As Ezra Klein details in a smart, clinical analysis at Vox.com, midterm elections have underlying dynamics that dictate results occasionally at odds with the inclinations of a majority of voters. Klein points to a Pew Research Center poll that indicates Americans have a distinctly more negative view of the Republican Party than of the Democrats. Nevertheless, Republicans are certain to hang on to, and even increase, their House majority in today’s election and are very likely to take control of the U.S. Senate.

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Why? Well, not because a majority of the American people want to give Republicans a big mandate. Instead, the GOP is likely to have a good night because Democrats are defending 21 Senate seats while Republicans are defending only 15. Among the Democratic senators are several who were swept into office by the unusually strong progressive tide that lifted Barack Obama into the White House in 2008. Now, with Obama’s popularity low and Democratic voters less inclined to show up to vote, those senators are in trouble.

And that leads to the core dynamic that has created an electoral swing between the two parties every two years. Republican voters are older and whiter than the general populace, and older white folk are much more likely to vote in midterm elections than the younger, browner Democratic base that seems to only get politically engaged in presidential election years.

As likely as Republicans are to win the Senate this year, Democrats will be just as likely to take control back in 2016 when the GOP will be defending many more positions and the electorate will lean Democratic. Neither now nor then should either party pretend to have gotten a mandate from the American people (barring a surprise landslide that dramatically favors one side or the other), but, of course, the winners will act as if they had been crowned kings.

Yes, in each election the people speak, but their voice is usually too muffled by structural impediments, low enthusiasm and mixed messages for any party to honestly claim the people have spoken just for them.

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