Democracy by the Numbers

For several years, I’ve occasionally driven back and forth between Vermont and upstate New York. The difference between the two states is always noticeable.

On the Vermont side of the border, everything seems neat and tidy and pleasant. There are billboards that say even the gas stations are nice in Vermont (I don’t remember seeing vases of plastic flowers in gas station restrooms in other states.)

The New York side of the border, however, which is equally rural, always looks shabby and rundown. The atmosphere in towns like Whitehall and Fort Ann is depressing. Every time I drive through there I wonder what the people do for a living.

So it was good to see confirmation of my assessment, and a possible explanation, in the New York Times: 

“In the four years after the financial crisis struck, a great wave of federal stimulus money washed over Rutland County (Vermont). It helped pay for bridges, roads, preschool programs, a community health center, buses and fire trucks, water mains and tanks… Just down Route 4, at the New York border, the landscape abruptly turns from spiffy to scruffy. Washington County, N.Y., which is home to about 60,000 people — just as Rutland is — saw only a quarter as much money.”

The Times suggests that the key difference between these adjoining regions is that Vermont, as a small state, has the same number of U.S. senators as New York, a very large state:

“Vermont’s 625,000 residents have two United States senators, and so do New York’s 19 million. That means that a Vermonter has 30 times the voting power in the Senate of a New Yorker just over the state line — the biggest inequality between two adjacent states.”

There are surely other reasons for the obvious discrepancy between Vermont and upstate New York, but it’s very likely that different levels of political representation are an important factor. States like Vermont and Wyoming (population 580,000) have the same number of senators as New York and California (population 38 million). That affects where the money goes.

Small states are even over-represented in the House. The representative from Wyoming has 580,000 constituents. The average representative from California has 720,000. Throw in the effect of gerrymandering in the House, which recently helped Republicans win 53% of the seats while receiving 48% of the popular vote, and it shouldn’t be surprising that Congress doesn’t reflect the will of the people.