The United States of America is a federal republic: a collection of states where the public elects its government at local, state, and federal levels. The United States is also a representative democracy, meaning that citizens vote for politicians to serve as representatives of the population's interests.
But just how closely does the United States' representative democracy reflect the interests of U.S. citizens?
In order for elected officials to be a true representation of the republic, each American would need to have equal access to participate in their democracy. But since America’s foundation, voting access among different populations has varied.
Although the idea of unequal voting rights in the United States might seem like something of the distant past, voting disparities still exist in America today. This map explores just some of the several ways in which the American voting system is characterized by unequal access and representation.
Hover or tap on a state for details
Congress passed the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause in 1868, guaranteeing Americans "equal protection of the laws." However, this equal protection did not include voting rights until 1870, when African American men were finally granted the right to vote under the Fifteenth Amendment. While a handful of states and territories like Utah and Washington granted women full voting rights as early as 1869, it wasn't until 1920 with the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment when women in all states gained the Constitutional right to vote.
Even though all U.S. citizens acquired the right to vote by 1920, Native Americans were not granted U.S. citizenship until the Snyder Act was passed 1924. However, many states with higher Native American populations continued to suppress their voting rights by using similar tactics that were used in southern states to oppress African American voters after the Fourteenth Amendment was passed.
The United States has a long history of systematically disenfranchising the voting rights of certain groups of its citizens, and some obstacles remain. Hindrances such as voter ID laws - referred to by some as voter suppression laws - are emerging in dozens of states, causing an inequality of voting access that disproportionately impacts elderly, minority, and lower income individuals. Other hurdles to political representation, like gerrymandering, persist in American democracy.
However, the United States' history of voting access also illustrates the country's capacity to progress within the confines of the Constitution's definition of "Equal Protection." The following sections discuss facets of American voting that should be part of an open dialogue on how the United States can improve democratic representation for all Americans.
Circle sizes on the map correspond to the amount of Electoral Votes each state has.
Article 2 of the U.S. Constitution established the nation's Electoral College in 1787, and there has not been any significant change to the Electoral College since 1800. Under Article 2, each state is allocated "a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators & Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress." However, the Number of Electors for each state does not represent the proportion of each state's population to the country's population as a whole.
This disproportionate voter representation means that, within the rules of the Electoral College, the loser of the popular vote can still become the President. In fact, since 2000, this has occurred twice, most recently in 2016 when 3 million more Americans voted for Hillary Clinton than Donald Trump. However, while Trump lost the popular vote the Electoral College fell in his favor, making him President in 2017. Hover or tap on a state to find out how many Electoral votes each state has.
Circle sizes on the map correspond to the amount of Electoral Votes each state had in the year 2000.
The results of the U.S. Presidential general election between George W. Bush and Al Gore were razor thin. Then Vice President Gore received 543,895 more votes than Bush, who was the incumbent governor of Texas at the time.
But overturning the winner of the popular vote is not the only way that the Electoral College impacts America's voting power.
The uneven spread of electors per state creates a voting disparity across the country. For example, Wyoming's voting eligible population1 is ~428,000 and the state has 3 Electors.
However, in Florida there are more than than 14.5 million eligible voters, but the state has just 29 electoral votes. This means that it takes 3.52 Florida voters to equal just one individual Wyoming voter in Presidential general elections.
Hover your cursor (tap for mobile) on the map and chart to find out how many voters in your state it takes to equal one Wyoming voter in a Presidential primary.
Even within the state level, voting disparity is codified into the geography of the American voting system.
The next section explores some gerrymandering cases across the United States, where the simple drawing of boundaries has led to a misrepresentative democracy.
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Gerrymandering refers to the act of drawing voting district boundaries that favor one political party over another. Both major political parties create gerrymandered districts. One way that gerrymandering occurs is by drawing boundaries that "pack" people
who tend to vote for a particular party into one district so that their democratic voices are strong in that district, but diluted throughout other districts. Another method of gerrymandering is "cracking", which creates districts that divide
like-minded voters so that their voting power is diluted among many districts. Sometimes, these populations are “packed” or “cracked” based upon their racial makeup, which is referred to as
Click on the grayed states to see some examples of districts that have been gerrymandered.
The precise ways in which district mappers create gerrymandered boundaries is oftentimes based upon race. The next map explores one more way in which voter disenfranchisement tactics can be viewed as having a racial bias.
Although substantial progress has been made to protect voter rights, there are a variety of ways those rights can be suppressed. Voters in some states who have been convicted of a felony can lose their right to participate in the U.S. democratic republic. Some states eventually restore voting rights to felons, while others permanently suppress such rights – even after they have served their entire sentence. In fact, those convicted of a felony living in Iowa, Kentucky, or Florida will never have their voting rights restored. The lighter blue states* on the map require an individual petition or governor's pardon for vote restoration.
A glimpse into the U.S. prison population quickly reveals that the American justice system incarcerates people of color at a higher rate and for longer sentences than white people, even for the same crime. In fact, a study conducted by the University of Michigan Law School found that, for the same crime, African American offenders were 75% more likely to face a mandatory sentence charge than white offenders. Therefore, stripping voting power from felons disenfranches racial minorities at a much higher rate as well.
|Comparing Population Ratios: Prison vs. General|
|State Name||Prison Population||State Population|
|African Americans to Caucasians||African Americans to Caucasians|
|Florida||3.6 to 1||1 to 2.7|
|Kentucky||3.3 to 1||1 to 7.06|
|Iowa||11.1 to 1||1 to 10.36|
|Tennessee||3.7 to 1||1 to 3.5|
|Arizona*||4.8 to 1||1 to 3.63|
|Alabama||3.3 to 1||1 to 2.21|
|Mississippi||3 to 1||1 to 1.45|
|Nevada||4.1 to 1||1 to 2.23|
|Delaware||4.8 to 1||1 to 3.33|
|Wyoming||3.5 to 1||1 to 10.11|
*For those convicted of two or more felonies in Arizona, restoring voting rights requires an individual petition to the government.
Circle sizes on the map correspond to the amount of days residents have to vote.
The amount of time you have to vote varies depending on where you live. Each state has their own voting window3, and within some states the voting window varies by county. This map and scatterplot show a correlation between the amount of time a voter has to cast their ballot and voter turnout. There is a small to moderate, positive correlation between voting window and voter turnout. This does not imply that longer voting windows causes higher turnout, but it does suggest a positive relationship between these features of the American voting system.
In Minnesota, voters have 47 days to vote (46 early voting days, and Election Day), which is the largest voting window in the country. In the November 2016 Presidential election, Minnesota also had the highest voting turnout at 74.8%.
Compare this with the state of Mississippi, a state with a one-day vote window, where the turnout for that same election was only 55.6%.
Vote Window & Voter Turnout
There are a lot of other factors that impact voter turnout. For example, while most states allow online voter registration, states like Oklahoma and Wyoming require either a mail-in registration, or an in-person visit to a local elections office.
Washington, Oregon, and Colorado all are mail-in only, allow online registration, and have between 2-3 weeks of a voting window. All three of these mail-in only states score among the top ten voter turnout percentages for the country.