Opinion

Sorry, liberals: The Senate 'popular vote' doesn't matter

It doesn't even measure anything meaningful

It's been over a week since the 2018 midterms, and the results are looking less like the split decision they first appeared to be, and more like a straightforward Democratic victory. Sure, it's not as big a victory as Republicans saw in 1994 or 2010, and Democrats saw a modest net loss in the Senate, but the results are closer to a "blue wave" than a mere ripple.

Still, many liberals seem to think the win should have been bigger, thanks to the novel concept of the Senate "popular vote." After Vox's Ezra Klein previewed a version of this argument before the election, it seemed to take off.

"Democrats won the popular vote tally in the Senate by 12 percent yesterday," musician and writer Mike Jollett complained.

"Democrats will win the popular vote for the Senate tonight, but lose seats," observed writer and activist Max Berger. "It makes no sense to apportion political power by land mass, instead of by person."

A clip went viral of a political analyst patiently explaining to Joy Behar of The View that Republican gains in the Senate weren't in fact the result of gerrymandering.

While constitutionally irrelevant, popular votes for the office of the president and for the House make sense conceptually. We look to the popular vote in presidential elections because, in every race from 1892 until 2000, the candidate who won it also went on to take the Electoral College. It seemed like a solid predictor of who would become the next president of the United States.

So why isn't the popular vote worth noting in Senate races? Because it doesn't even measure anything meaningful. Unlike the House, only a third of Senate seats are up in any given cycle. This year, Democrats were defending 26 of those to the Republicans' nine, so it stands to reason they would get a lot of votes. California, the most populous state, will increasingly have Senate elections where no Republicans are even on the ballot.

"While Democrats lost seats on Tuesday night, they actually won most of the races that were held — at least 22 of the 35 seats, and possibly a couple more," The Washington Post's Aaron Blake explains. "That's 63 percent or more of the seats, despite winning just 55 percent of the vote."

Liberals have been obsessed with the popular vote ever since two of the most recent Republican presidents they hate most, George W. Bush and Donald Trump, lost it but were elected president anyway. The first real sign they'd begin applying the popular vote to institutions like the Senate, however, came when Democrats started arguing about whether Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton had won the popular vote in their 2008 presidential primaries.

One of Clinton's arguments against Obama was that she, not he, won the Democratic popular vote. As is the case with the Senate, this statistic isn't as impressive as it sounds. Obama beat Clinton where they actually ran against each other head-to-head. Yet Democrats mostly dismissed this logic back then. It wasn't until Clinton won the popular vote against Trump in 2016, but lost the Electoral College, that Democrats started to complain in earnest about our undemocratic Constitution for the first time since the Progressive Era.

There have long been arguments about whether the Electoral College is obsolete, but most people accepted that our national elections are not a one-size-fits all national election, but a composite of 50 state (plus the District of Columbia and various territories') elections. It made sense to talk about winning California or New York but not national vote totals, even if pollsters did regularly try to take the country's temperature on major party presidential preferences.

There is one big reason to keep it this way, and it's one that liberals should find especially compelling: diversity. Our national variety would be poorly served if America became a unitary state with a parliamentary system.

Our constitutional system was designed to protect the rights of minorities and to respect internal cultural differences. These issues still plague our system today, and everything liberals have accomplished, from the New Deal to ObamaCare with the Civil Rights Movement in between, has been achieved through that system. That's because as recently as the first half of Obama's first term, liberals were able to command supermajority support for their candidates. That consensus has broken down, limiting their power. And the electoral defeats that have sprung from having their support concentrated in urban areas and on the coasts have cost them control of the courts, which were just as undemocratic when most judges were liberals.

Designing a system that prioritizes running up the score in California would, in theory, be easier than recreating that liberal consensus. But changing the Constitution also requires supermajorities, not eking out a bare national plurality. In a diverse country, such a system would look less like a democratic utopia, and more like Mitch McConnell's Senate without the filibuster.

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