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Can majority rule survive America's widening political divide?

August 11, 2020. Summarized by summa-bot.

A voter casts their ballot at a polling station in the Summit Christian Fellowship in Big Bear, California, November 8, 2016. / AFP / Bill Wechter (Photo credit should read BILL WECHTER/AFP via Getty Images)

If Joe Biden maintains his steady lead in national polls over President Donald Trump through Election Day, Democrats will win the popular vote for the seventh time in the past eight presidential elections -- something no party has achieved since the formation of the modern American political system in 1828.

(CNN)If Joe Biden maintains his steady lead in national polls over President Donald Trump through Election Day, Democrats will win the popular vote for the seventh time in the past eight presidential elections -- something no party has achieved since the formation of the modern American political system in 1828.

The prospect that Trump could win the Electoral College and the presidency while losing the popular vote a second time -- something no president has done -- underscores the extent to which the 2020 election is emerging as a stress test for a core pillar of American democracy: the belief that majorities, in most instances, should rule.

In fact, over the past two decades, underlying features in the American electoral system that benefit small states, such as the Electoral College and the two-senator-per-state rule, have allowed Republicans to repeatedly win control of the federal government while a majority of voters preferred Democrats.

Though Republican nominees have won the popular vote only once in the five presidential elections since 2000, the GOP has controlled the White House for 12 of the 20 years since then.

Similarly, Republicans have controlled the Senate more than half the time since 2000 even though GOP senators, when attributing half of each state's population to each senator, have never represented more people than their Democratic colleagues, according to calculations by Lee Drutman, a senior fellow at the think tank New America.

But if Democrats achieve unified control of the White House and Congress in November, then pursue electoral revisions such as a new Voting Rights Act that make it more likely popular majorities will win control of government, that would likely spark a fierce backlash from Republican constituencies who already fear that the nation's underlying demographic changes are marginalizing them.

In their book, Hacker and Pierson describe the divergence between popular majorities and electoral outcomes as "counter-majoritarianism, or sustained minority rule. " By several key measures that divergence has widened over the past several decades -- in the process consistently benefiting Republicans, whose strength among non-college, Christian and non-urban White voters has allowed them to dominate in smaller, interior, heavily rural states.

(One conspicuous exception came in 2012, when Democrats narrowly beat the GOP in the total House popular vote, but the aggressive gerrymanders passed in many Republican-controlled states allowed the party to maintain the House majority. )

Even so, in every election when Republicans held the House majority since 1996, the party won a substantially larger share of the seats than it did of the popular vote, both because of its success in gerrymandering and because the Democrats' dominance of large urban centers results in them accumulating large numbers of "wasted" votes in landslide districts.

As Hacker and Pierson note, all of the GOP-appointed justices that compose the conservative Supreme Court majority were selected by Republican presidents who lost the popular vote, except for Clarence Thomas, who was chosen by George H. W. Bush.

These electoral patterns, combined with the population dynamics, could leave the GOP even more reliant on smaller states, and increase the odds that Democrats will win the most popular votes in presidential, House and Senate elections through the 2020s.

Taken together, such an agenda might increase the chances that Democrats can win majorities in the House, Senate or Electoral College when they win the most votes in those contests.

But he sees years of wrenching conflict ahead as Republicans try to hold power even as demographic change further reduces the odds that the party, as currently constituted, can assemble popular majorities, while Democrats seek changes in the electoral rules that allow the majority to govern.

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