America is now experiencing unprecedented voter suppression. Republicans are purging black and elderly voters from voter rolls across the country. Lawmakers are exploiting voter ID laws and other restrictive policies to discourage turnout.
Simply casting a vote is a challenge. But even for people who get to vote, not all votes votes are created equal.
A new Wallet Hub study measured the voting power of individual voters by state ahead of the 2018 midterm elections. Unsurprisingly, voters in sparsely populated states like Wyoming, North Dakota and Alaska have more powerful votes than people in New York, California or Texas.
Study authors tabulated the number of elected officials in federal government per total adult residents in a state. Wyoming ranked first in general voting power by a significant margin, while Georgia—a state currently encountering rampant voter suppression efforts—came in last. The biggest discrepancy of voting power came in Senate elections, where a vote in North Dakota (6.90) is worth almost 100 times as much as a vote in California (0.07).
Voting inequality starts with simple math. When there are less people voting in an election, each individual vote becomes worth more. In state gubernatorial races, where there’s no electoral college and one person equals one vote, it’s no surprise to see some of the least populated states rank toward the top in voting power.
But voting inequality is also the result of an inherently flawed system. As Daniel Lazere wrote for Jacobin in 2014, the U.S. Senate is “the most unrepresentative major legislature in the ‘democratic world.’” Because each state gets two senators regardless of population, voters in more rural states hold inordinate power over those in more populous ones. The Senate ratifies treaties, major legislation and constitutional amendments, which means those representing laughably small percentages of the American population can stall or destroy bills altogether.
Voting inequality reigns even in the House of Representatives, where population determines a state’s number of reps. It’s not nearly as pronounced as in gubernatorial or Senate elections, but decades of gerrymandering have drawn districts into Rorschach-like shapes. While their policy goals are deeply unpopular, Republicans have disproportionate Congressional representation.
Simply put, America is not a true democracy. This might upset your old history teacher or your Constitution-humping uncle, but it’s reality. The government elected to represent the people does not represent all of them equally. And that’s without mentioning the fact that women couldn’t vote until 1920. Or that African Americans couldn’t vote until 1870 and were largely prevented from doing so by hateful, restrictive policies anyway. Or that two of the last three American presidents, arguably the worst in history, were elected without winning the popular vote.
Wallet Hub’s study is a good reminder of what Americans are up against on a macro level. You need to vote on Nov. 6, because voting is important. But you should also remember its limitations in American “democracy.”