41,549,808

A startling number than may understate the problem.

Vox’s Ian Millhiser puts a number on the issue that we, and in particular Steven Taylor, have been harping on for years: the incredible unrepresentativeness of the United States Senate.

The Senate is malapportioned to give small states like Wyoming exactly as many senators as large states like California — even though California has about 68 times as many residents as Wyoming.

Because smaller states tend to be whiter and more conservative than larger states, this malapportionment gives Republicans an enormous advantage in the fight for control of the Senate. Once Warnock and Ossoff take their seats, the Democratic half of the Senate will represent 41,549,808 more people than the Republican half.

I derived this number by using 2019 population estimates from the United States Census Bureau. In each state where both senators belong to the same party, I allocated the state’s entire population to that party. In states with split delegations, I allocated half of the state’s population to each party. I coded Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Angus King (I-ME) as Democrats. Although both men identify as independents, they caucus with the Democratic Party.

You can check my work using this spreadsheet.

It’s worth highlighting just how much of an advantage Republicans derive from Senate malapportionment. In the 25 most populous states, Democratic senators will hold a 29-21 seat majority once Warnock and Ossoff are sworn in. Republicans, meanwhile, have an identical 29-21 majority in the 25 least populous states.

The 25 most populous states contain nearly 84 percent of the 50 states’ total population. So 16 percent of the country controls half of the seats in the United States Senate (and that’s not accounting for the fact that DC, Puerto Rico, and several other US territories have no representation at all in Congress).

And, of course, since the Senate is baked into the Electoral College (each state gets Electors equal to their number of US Representatives and Senators) our system for electing Presidents is also skewed.

Further, it’s arguable that the skew is actually understated here. Absent really extraordinary circumstances, we would have expected the two Georgia seats to stay with the Republican incumbents. Ditto McSally’s seat in Arizona and probably others I’m forgetting.

The partisan breakdown certainly isn’t baked in. States that were reliably Republican in my memory are now reliably Democratic and vice-versa. And even the demography of states can change over time. But the basic fact that California’s 39,368,078 residents have no more say than Wyoming’s 582,328 is simply incomprehensible unless you start with the assumption that they’re sovereign countries.

FILED UNDER: Congress, Democracy, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Kathy says:

    I sometimes think semantics is the enemy of history.

    But the basic fact that California’s 39,368,078 residents have no more say than Wyoming’s 582,328 is simply incomprehensible unless you start with the assumption that they’re sovereign countries.

    For a long time, the word “state” referred to a self-contained, autonomous, sovereign entity. What today we call a country or nation, and still often refer to as a state. The thirteen British colonies that banded together to gain independence from Britain were quasi-states in that sense, though not fully sovereign as they were subject to the rule of the reigning British monarch.

    After independence, there was for some years a confederation of now-sovereign states. This proved unworkable, at least under the Articles of Confederation as written, which led to the establishment of the Constitution and of a union of states rather than a confederation.

    But these were very much states in the sense defined above. Ergo, among other things, the equal, in number, representation in the Senate, just like each nation today gets one vote in the UN regardless of population.

    Over time the central government gained predominance. Today the various states in the union, which ought to be called subdivisions or provinces if linguistics only worked that way, are largely autonomous but with sharp limits in their sovereign powers.

    And it’s time for the Constitution to catch up to reality.

    It may even be possible, but it will be hard and not very likely.

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  2. Michael Reynolds says:

    But the basic fact that California’s 39,368,078 residents have no more say than Wyoming’s 582,328 is simply incomprehensible unless you start with the assumption that they’re sovereign countries.

    Yes, and we have no way to fix it. Fucked by the Founders. BTW, even if Wyoming were a sovereign nation, it would make no more sense than it does now. The very concept of states is absurd in a superpower in 2021.

    4
  3. Erik says:

    @Michael Reynolds: we can’t fix the Senate, but we can fox the House. Give populous states a bunch more representatives and it begins to fix the EC too.

    7
  4. My fix for this would be to give the House the same advise and consent power as the Senate. A few improvements to the House, which could be done without another amendment, would give the people an actual say in this while maintaining what the Founders/Framers intended.

    It’s certainly more realistic than abolishing the Senate, which is what many people jump to immediately.

    2
  5. Michael Cain says:

    Ditto McSally’s seat in Arizona…

    I have to disagree with you on this. How have Republicans lost Southwestern states? “Slowly, then all at once,” as they say. The signs were all there. In no particular order: ballot initiatives opposed by Republicans increasingly passed; Democrats inched up in the state chambers; Maricopa County’s suburbs were swinging steadily towards Democrats; McSally lost the Senate election in 2018 (choosing her for the appointment was a bad move on Ducey’s part); Dems won five of nine US House seats in 2018.

    The same basic pattern happened in CO, NM, and NV.

    4
  6. An Interested Party says:

    There’s talk from various political quarters about the breakup of the country or civil war or some other extreme national act…such an event won’t come from the country electing or not electing a clown like Donald Trump but it very well may come from the subject of this post…the representational disparity in the Senate is obscene, surely not something the Founding Fathers anticipated or would have wanted, and definitely not something that will be politically feasible over the long term…

  7. CSK says:

    The chamber’s been invaded by the pro-Trump hordes. Some lunatic is standing on the dais screaming that Trump won the election.

    3
  8. Andy says:

    But the basic fact that California’s 39,368,078 residents have no more say than Wyoming’s 582,328 is simply incomprehensible unless you start with the assumption that they’re sovereign countries.

    Well, like it or not, the United States was created as a compact between the sovereign states, and the Constitution was designed to ensure that states retained a significant amount of that sovereignty. For example, certain rights and obligations of US citizenship, are only conferred on citizens who are residents of a state as opposed to a territory; states have the authority to fund and command their own armed forces; many aspects of state law and governance are untouchable by the federal government although Congress gets around this by conditioning federal money on adherence to federal regulations or requirements – a deal which every state accepts but technically doesn’t have to.

    So the “assumption” of sovereignty isn’t an assumption – it’s been baked in from the beginning.

    Secondly, the idea that California has “less say” than Wyoming only applies if you only look at the Senate and ignore absolutely everything else. California has huge advantages that no other state has thanks to how big it is (It’s by far the largest state with ~12 million more people than #2 Texas), its favorable geography, clout in interstate conflicts, etc. California is a de facto national regulatory agency in some areas thanks to its size and market power, particularly in tech.

    The best-known example of this is that California – alone among all 50 states – has the authority to regulate its own vehicle emissions – a carve out that Congress created in the Clean air act that applies to no other state can take advantage of. Other states can adopt federal guidelines or California guidelines but not create their own.

    Another example is California’s new CCPA law which is going to de facto apply to the entire country.

    California has tons of advantages, power and authority compared to small states and California’s influence extends much further than Wyoming can even dream of.

    I think those who are committed to equalizing power between the states should at least equalize it in all areas and not merely a single one.

  9. Sleeping Dog says:

    @Andy:

    I think those who are committed to equalizing power between the states should at least equalize it in all areas and not merely a single one.

    Define what areas you mean, otherwise this is a pretty meaningless statement.

    2
  10. James Joyner says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    even if Wyoming were a sovereign nation, it would make no more sense than it does now.

    Burkina Faso gets the same vote in the UN General Assembly as China or the USA. Sovereign equality is a fundamental principle of international law.

    @Andy:

    Well, like it or not, the United States was created as a compact between the sovereign states, and the Constitution was designed to ensure that states retained a significant amount of that sovereignty.

    I’m aware. And it made sense for the 13 states under the Articles of Confederation in 1789. But few of the states which have joined since were anything but federal enclaves when they joined the Union. The Dakotas and Wyoming were never independent.

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  11. Really, the semantic problem is not “state” as much as it is “sovereign.”

    While I understand that we talk about state sovereignty in the context of certain internal relationships, but the reality is that there is only one truly sovereign entity in this discussion, and it is the United States government. The federal government is the ultimate authority, plain and simple.

    That doesn’t mean you can’t have federalism which includes substantial autonomy in some areas of policy. But it is pure fantasy, ultimately, to pretend like Wyoming is “sovereign” in some sense truly independent from its place within the broader US.

    Put another way, the US is truly sovereign whether anyone lives in Wyoming or not. But Wyoming is nothing without being part of the greater United States.

    4
  12. DrDaveT says:

    @James Joyner:

    Burkina Faso gets the same vote in the UN General Assembly as China or the USA. Sovereign equality is a fundamental principle of international law.

    So you are content for the government of the United States to be as effective and coherent as the UN General Assembly?

    Or, conversely — what the hell does international law have to do with US internal governance? We haven’t been a confederation of sovereign nations for a very long time… and that’s a good thing.

  13. Kathy says:

    It’s too bad we were derailed form this subject by yesterday’s seditious events. There was much more to speculate and think about on this. Hopefully we can retake it soon.