3 million Democrat voters would have more impact in smaller states. (Maps from New York Times election coverage 2020)

Move On

A modest proposal to migrate Democrats to seats they can flip

What follows is a thought experiment, mostly to gauge the size and potential impact of mobility activism, rather than its plausibility. In practice, there are hundreds of factors and consequences — both positive and negative — to any move that are not addressed here.

I am about to make a case for the voluntary movement of millions of people from California. It is a kind New Gold Rush, only instead of individual opportunity for riches in California, the motivation is a communal good built elsewhere, with an endgame of inclusivity and equity.

The plan asks for people who are willing and able to put their bodies in a place to do the most good for others, and once there to do the daily work that produces real change. It asks for personal sacrifice, mitigated by the presence of others in a migration cohort. It is a plan that demands both coordination and scale.

Were it realized, however, the shape of national policies would change dramatically.

In 2016, Hillary Clinton received 2,868, 519 more votes than Donald Trump, who nonetheless took the White House easily. Much hand-wringing ensued over the unfairness of the Electoral College, renewing calls for popular national vote to determine future presidents.

The path to such reform is long and fraught with obstacles. Amending the Constitution has occurred only 27 times in our country’s history, and just twice in my lifetime. The most recent—a restriction that delays Congressional salary changes until after the next elections—is older than my marriage and took 202 years to ratify. In our highly-polarized environment, it is difficult to imagine Congress and state legislatures agreeing to cede power to states with large populations.

Alternatives exist that bypass the amendment path. Since each state is free to dictate how their allotted electorates are awarded, Congress doesn’t have to play a role at all. A compact between states pledges to award electorates based on the National Popular Vote, should it gain sufficient support. It currently stands 74 electoral votes short of becoming effective—a possibility, given that nine states represented by 88 electorates have cleared at least one house in their state legislatures.

Even if successful, though, the plan is limited to the White House. The greater damage to the Democratic agenda has been done in the Senate. NPV does not address that.

Democrats complain a lot about the uneven voting power of rural states in choosing a President or casting votes in the Senate. The flip side is that it also sets a lower bar for how many votes it takes to change the politics of a smaller state.

In 2018, Dianne Feinstein defeated fellow Democrat Kevin de León in California by a million votes, clinching victory with 5.1 million votes (about 85 percent of her total). By contrast, Republican John Barrasso defeated Democrat Gary Trauner in the same year in Wyoming with just 62,000 votes — about 45 percent of his 136,210 total.

Those spare 900,000 Feinstein votes are worth more in Wyoming.

The stronghold of Democrat power is clearly in California. The most populous state in America reliably puts almost four dozen elected officials in Congress while allowing the daily lives of its citizens to be shaped by liberal policies. Most political races aren’t close, so California citizens gain a political confidence that is difficult to replicate elsewhere in the country.

As of November 5, California was looking at 43 of the 53 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives going to Democrats. Seven of those Democratic victories pitted members of the same party against each other, accumulating 1.5 million votes for the candidates in those races. (NOTE: Final tallies are not yet certified, but the specific numbers should remain in the ballpark.)

In races between parties, Democrats in California won by an average of 36 points with 2.8 million more voters than their Republican opponents. By contrast, the 10 seats controlled by Republicans came from races that separated by an average of 6 points and 14,000 votes.

Elsewhere in the country, such races have a different character. In 2014, for example, Democrats won by an average of 19 points while Republicans won by 25 points. Only 5 of the 36 U.S. Senate races that year were within 5 points (considered a close race). This reflects polarization that has increased over the last generation, as well as the reality that most political races are shaped prior to a ballot.

In California this year, only 5 Congressional races were close. Republicans won 4 of them. Democrats won 35 races in landslides, where the margin of victory was 20 or more points.

What does the state get for all of that voting power? Two senators. Same as everyone else.

Imagine if all of the extra votes California wastes could be applied toward Democratic candidates in less populous states with Republican incumbents.

Before considering how plausible it might be to entice millions of Californians to live and vote somewhere else, let’s crunch some numbers to show what is possible.

If all Democratic wins in California were reduced to close (but comfortable) victories, all of those former landslides and solid wins would generate an excess of 3.2 million votes to redistribute. Even if only landslide victories were considered, the state would still have 1 million Democratic votes it doesn’t really need. This, incidentally, is another definition of a wasted vote.

First order of business might be to relocate within the state, addressing the 10 U.S. House races that Republicans win in California. Because these races are usually close ones, it only takes about 300,000 voters. That’s a little more than the total employee roster of AT&T, leaving up to 2.9 million voters to be used elsewhere.

There are seven states (plus DC) with the minimum three electoral votes. Five of those are currently dominated by Republican politics:

  • Alaska
  • Montana
  • North Dakota
  • South Dakota, and
  • Wyoming.

Among them, there are 15 congressional seats—5 representatives and 10 senators—in play. Those 15 Republicans won by an average of 33 points over Democrats, but they earned just 3.2 million votes in recent elections. That total includes Rep. Dusty Johnson (R-SD), who won with 81% of the vote over a Libertarian (No Democrat ran).

Just 1.7 million voting Democrats are needed to flip all of those races into 5-point victories, building on the support that already exists in these states.

That potentially leaves enough for an additional mass exodus to Maine—where Susan Collins just defeated Sara Gideon by 72,272 votes—and South Carolina—where Lindsey Graham defeated Jaime Harrison by 255,925 votes. There would even be enough left over to storm Kentucky and defeat Mitch McConnell, who won in 2020 by 416,779 votes over Amy McGrath.

This mass migration of Democrats would impact California, too. The state could lose control of up to 4 House seats due to loss of population, though they would be gained by the same targeted small states and likely to remain in Democratic control. The consolidation of congressional districts would create openings for Republicans, and races would be closer. State government would become more difficult as well, though this migration plan would stop short of creating losing situations for Democrats out West.

It is no small task to make this thought exercise a reality. For just a moment, however, imagine January 2021 with:

  • 58 Democrats and Independents in the Senate, a governing body that no longer includes McConnell, Graham and Collins
  • A gain of at least 15 more representatives in the House
  • An extra 32 electoral votes for Biden

Imagine the comfort of that lead not requiring a 77-year-old white man to be the torchbearer for the party. If the excess votes in California had migrated before 2016, Donald Trump would never have been president.

There is a good reason Democrats choose to live in California. Sunny weather. Great scenery. Social supports. Inclusive culture. Political affinity. Why be represented by Trey Hollingsworth when you can have Barbara Lee speak for you on the House floor? If you are already enjoying those perks, why give that up?

While the targeted small states are definitely not California, they do have their own claim on interesting weather and great scenery. What they lack in a built-in liberal mindset they make up for with a lower cost of living that makes things significantly less expensive. Cheyenne, Wyoming is 42.5 percent cheaper to live in than Los Angeles, California, with houses 63 percent cheaper. San Francisco, California is 51.5 percent more expensive than Jackson, Wyoming with houses up 71 percent.

One of the big reasons someone moves to California instead of Wyoming is economic opportunity. As of May 2019 (pre-pandemic), there were over 17 million jobs in California. The five target small states had 1.9 million jobs combined. To relocate so many voters, there has to be employment awaiting them.

If someone like Warren Buffett or Jeff Bezos wanted to put some of their capitalism success to good use, they could invest in building companies in small towns in small states, creating job opportunities and intentionally hiring people away from California. Berkshire Hathaway already employs 391,000 people, and Jeff Bezos’ Amazon employs 1.3 million, so maybe they could both scale up to Walmart levels.

Even their billions wouldn’t be sufficient to guarantee salaries, however. Matching the average $62,356 annual salary in California for 2.9 million migrating voters would run $181 billion. Even paying Wyoming dollars, the price tag for that many employees is still $161 billion. However, if Michael Bloomberg is willing to sink millions into an unlikely run for President and offering to pay ex-felons’ fines in Florida, maybe there is a market among the One Percent to buy the Democrats some electorates by helping to finance economic relocation.

The jobs do not need to be new ones, however. If the pandemic has taught us anything, though, it is that we have the technological infrastructure to support remote work in many industries. It is possible that a political migration could be supported by current employers encouraging their workforce to set up shop in other states, or opening branches there.

Mobility activism certainly seems extreme. While this proposal is explicitly political, mass migrations are embedded in our 244-year history already and do impact the political landscape.

Some — like the government-backed human trafficking of and forced relocation of Black and Indigenous people — were not made by choice. Others, like the Southern exodus in the 20th century by 28 million Black, Latinx, and white citizens, or Westward Expansion a century earlier, occurred organically as people sought better socioeconomic opportunity. In this case, an Electoral Migration would be seeking political opportunity.

Mobility has existed as both a privilege and a necessity. Each year, about 6.8 million people move across state lines, and an additional 33 million move to a new home in the same state. Most moves happen for twentysomethings making less than $30,000 annually (about 2–1/2 times the poverty level), either due to college when they are younger or moving between apartments and houses as they start careers and families.

Even with resources and inclination, migration is a realistic option for some more than others. The experience of moving to a new town will likely be more hospitable for white people than for Black people, and for straight cis people more than for those along the LGBTQIA+ spectrum.

The racial diversity of these target states is low — Wyoming, Montana, and North Dakota rank #7–9 as most white; South Dakota is #16. All 5 states are in the top 15 smallest percentage of Black residents, as well. Likewise, the percentages of LGBT populations are among the smallest in the country—North Dakota (2.7%) is around half the density of California (5.3%).

This is not an ask for people in at-risk groups; primarily, this would be a call for others to use their privilege to make change happen.

When I moved to Indiana in 1999, I met all of the common criteria for mobility of age, race and income. I moved for a job, before I had kids, and haven’t left the state since.

My home is a liberal town—part of the draw—in the middle of a conservative county, giving me local benefits of political affinity but requiring effort to affect change policy beyond that. I continue to live in a red district in Indiana in part because this is where there is work to be done, because ultimately my vote will matter more here.

Mobility as a strategy also involves convincing people not to move. To make an impact in spring and fall elections, states looking to achieve a more powerful voice must do better at retaining the liberal and progressive people already here. The brain drain that plagues college towns also lets votes escape, often to California.

Just as it would be difficult to convince a Californian benefiting from a larger community of people who share their demographics to abandon that for a place where the community is smaller and even harder to find, current residents here are constantly re-evaluating whether it is worth it to remain in a state that promoted Mike Pence. I don’t share those same risks, which only increases the need to stay and contribute to change.

The motivating change is to shift the federal governing bodies to the left, but the opportunity for change is also at the state and local level, as well as in your own understanding of the world.

One key benefit of living in a Red State is that you are closer to conversations you must have with people sharing and endorsing regional power. It is more meaningful for a liberal to talk to a conservative friend in the context of activities and experiences they have in common. Our polarization runs so deep, we are conditioned to huddle in our safe groups. Yet each day, the world shows us all the beauty, tragedy, and triumph of our chosen home, a shared experience. This is the language of connection.

Democrats here are outnumbered here, 3 to 2, and we could use another city’s worth of liberal and progressive support to be again competitive in our own congressional district. However, all of the small states described above need less to gain more.

Legislative and activist paths to better representation are available, but they aren’t any easier than a mobility solution. Moving to somewhere that needs your voice is something you can do without requiring government approval. Anyone with inclination and resource is free to move about the country.

In the Unconference world, ad hoc discussions have value when people decide to join the conversation. If they don’t like their experience, they move on. Voting with your feet is an effective way to shape the gathering and find ways to maximize your own involvement.

Our democracy should work the same way.

It is not practical for nearly three million Democrats to become ex-pats of California, but this thought experiment does have value if it helps us become intentional about where we live and what we intend to do with the constitutional power we are given.

When it comes down to it, I truly do not want to uproot 2.9 million people from their coastal homes to head to mid-America and other rural areas to impose their will. Political colonization helps a party but not people like my cousin, living in a Dakota and having a different response to this political season than I am having. Change that cannot find a way to include him is merely a shift in power, which only invites the cycle to eventually turn again.

The need for political desegregation is legitimate. It is best if you change where you are, but also recognize when you are needed elsewhere.

Community experience designer / geek dad / recovering Informatics doctoral student / whiteboard artist / author / feminist

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