The Senate’s Growing Unrepresentativeness

us-states-population-pie-chartHas the Senate, which gives disproportionately more power to states with small populations, outlived its usefulness?   Sandy Levinson thinks so:

Wikipedia has a very helpful entry on the population of the US states. One gets to 50% of the total population, according to 2008 census estimate, with the nine largest states, California, Texas, New York, Florida, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Georgia. (Note, though, that the percentages are calculated by including the populations of US territories such as Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia, which, of course, have no voting representation in Congrees.) So one might divide the Senate into two groups, one of 18 senators who represent a majority of the population, the other of the remaining 82 senators who represent slightly less than 50% of “we the people.” If one adds four more states, North Carolina, New Jersey, Virginia, and Washington, one reaches 60% of the total population, and adding yet eight more states, ending with Minnesota, reaches 75%.

So what this means is that 42 senators represent 75% of the population, while the remaining 58 (beginning with Colorado and going through Wyoming) have just short of a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate while representing, by definition, less than 25% of the total population. It is possible, of course, that 2010 census figures will demonstrate that, say, it would take the top 22 states, with 44 senators, to get up to 75% of the population, so that the remainder of the population would have “only” 56 senators.

What’s interesting about this, though, is that it’s not radically different than it was in 1789, when the Constitution (and thus the Senate) came into being.  Here, roughly, is the population of each of the original 13 states as of the 1790 Census:

    Pennsylvania 434,373
    North Carolina 393,751
    New York 340,120
    Maryland 319,728
    South Carolina 249,073
    Connecticut 237,946
    New Jersey 184,139
    New Hampshire
    Georgia 82,548
    Rhode Island 68,825
    Delaware 59,094

I say “roughly” because the 1790 Census counted Vermont, then part of New Hampshire; Kentucky, then a county in Virginia; and Maine, then part of Massachussets as separate entities even though they wouldn’t be admitted to the union as states until 1791, 1792, and 1820 respectively.  I’ve added them into the table above and included them into the totals, while listing them separately.

The U.S. population, including territories, was 3,929,214 which means 1,964,607 is 50%.   Adding the four most populous states together (including Kentucky as part of Virginia and Maine as part of Massachusetts ) brings you well above that, to 2,124,738.  Adding the 5th state takes you over the 60% mark.  So,  yes, the disproportionality has increased — 30% of the states accounted for half the Senate at the founding vice 18% now — but I’m not sure that it’s enough to matter from a fairness standpoint.

The most fruitful anti-Senate argument, it seems to me, is the changed nature of what states are now versus what they were then. In 1787, the 13 states came together as sovereign entities united mostly for trade and defense policy in a confederation.  That compact wasn’t working, so they decided they needed to become a union, albeit one where the constituent members still had virtual sovereignty over domestic affairs save interstate commerce.

We have long since evolved, however, into a national state with the 50 “states” as secondary creatures.  The evolution was gradual, with the central government grabbing more power, using an ever-expanding interpretation of what constituted “interstate commerce,” stretching the Elastic Clause beyond recognition, and ignoring the 9th and 10th Amendments.   We saw radical redefinitions after the Civil War, the New Deal, and the Civil Rights era.

Mostly, though, we went from a society that was 94.9 percent rural in 1790 to one that was 81 percent urban in 2000.    We live a much more cosmopolitan existence than our romantic notion of ourselves would indicate.   A goodly chunk of us live and work in different states from where we were born and many of us have moved multiple times.  Few, if any, of us still think of ourselves primarily as Virginians or Californians or Mainers; we’re Americans.

In the current environment, it’s harder to argue that California’s 36.8 million people — nearly 12% of the U.S. population — should have the same representation in the Senate as Wyoming’s 532,668 (a mere 0.17% of the population).  But, frankly, it’s an academic question, as Levinson acknowledges:

I suggest that there is no more merit to this configuration of power than there is, say, to the present allocation of veto power in the Security Council of the United Nations or the assignment of independent representation in the General Assembly, prior to 1989, to Ukraine or Byelorussia. All of these can be readily explained as the result of “necessary” compromises at the time of the formation of the institutions in question. But, of course, the same is true of the 3/5 compromise re the “representation” of slaves. The inability of the Security Council to reform itself, because of the assignment of veto powers, is a major problem with the contemporary United Nations. Ditto the Senate.

A political compromise forged for an entirely different time has become an anachronism. But it’s one we’re stuck with.

Note:  I inadvertently omitted Pennsylvania from the original list and included Maine as a separate state.  I’ve corrected myself inline rather than as an update for the sake of flow.  The argument is actually substantially strengthened now, since Pennsylvania was the 2nd most populous state.

FILED UNDER: Congress, Environment, Political Theory, 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. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Triumph says:

    I think to level the playing field we should go back to counting each Black person as 3/5ths of a person and just forget about counting all of the Indians.

  2. PD Shaw says:

    I’d say there really is no difference today than in the 1780s. The reality was that somewhere around half of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention wouldn’t agree to the Virginia Plan, and that included states like New York and Maryland that didn’t share Virginian and Pennsylvania’s untapped Western lands for expansion.

    There were certainly delegates at the Convention that draped their views in the mantle of state primacy, but just as many like James Madison who argued that states were not sovereigns:

    in fact they are only political societies. There is a gradation of power in all societies, from the lowest corporation to the highest sovereign. The states never possessed the essential rights of sovereignty. These were always vested in Congress.

    Not all agreed then or now with that sentiment, but it’s always been there.

  3. I think it goes beyond the Senate. The very notion of states is irrelevant, outdated and silly. Why states at all? And spare me the alleged experimental role of state governments. Their experiments amount to, “Let’s execute children!” (Florida,) “Let’s go bankrupt!” (California) and “Let’s see just how embarrassing we can be!” (South Carolina.) Do us all a favor, stop the whole laboratory of democracy thing.

    California’s a nation and North Dakota is a trivia question. (What’s cold, empty and rectangular but doesn’t have the word “south” in its name?) California could be at least four states: Los Angeles, San Francisco, Redwood (to include any part of the state with naturally occurring trees) and Bakersfield.

    Let’s break up the big states, meld the tiny states and form administrative districts. We’d save a fortune in pointless layers of government. (Can anyone explain why in God’s name there’s such a thing as a “governor” of Alaska? Alaska should be governed by the senior cruise ship captain in port at any given time.)

    We could eliminate state legislatures, governors, state school boards, the electoral college — the savings would be a Republican’s wet dream.

  4. James says:

    Funny, when I was raised outside Philadelphia we were told Pennsylvania was one of the 13 original colonies that formed the country. Guess that was wrong as I don’t see them on your list.

  5. PD Shaw says:

    Well, if we’re going to quibble, Maine shouldn’t be listed as a state up there either, but how many people are assembling “colonial” population figures on New Year’s weekend?

  6. Dave Schuler says:

    While I agree with Michael that electoral reform needs to go beyond the Senate (I’d divide up the big states and enact anti-gerrymandering provisions for legislative districts, for a start), I disagree with federalizing everything. Most especially, I disagree that extending the federal bureaucracy would result in cost savings. Contrariwise, since the federal pay scales are generally higher than the state equivalents it would result in pay increases for lots of local bureaucrats. Additionally, the cost of a bureaucracy increases at nlogn with the number of levels of the bureaucracy. Federalizing government with result in additional levels not fewer and would make government even more distant and incompetent than it already is.

  7. and would make government even more distant and incompetent than it already is.

    More incompetent than California’s state government? I’m pretty sure that’s mathematically impossible. It’s like saying we’d end up with government more corrupt than Illinois. Like the speed of light, some things cannot be surpassed.

  8. JKB says:

    More incompetent than California’s state government?

    Corruption is best if it is decentralized as competing centers are naturally limiting. You mention two corrupt state and local entities. But neither is to big to be unassailable. Sure the coming failure of California will be a big wound but it is not likely to take down the Union. But federal corruption controlled out of DC without State investigators to stumble across it would be hard to keep in check.

    However, this problem is being looked at wrong. The States have equal representation. The population has proportional representation. We talk about Senators as representing their constituents but in reality they represent their states. It wasn’t that long ago that the citizens had no say in who was to be their Senators.

    Being a republic of republics is the only way the US has survived as a free country. The trends to circumvent the feature is what endangers the continuation of our little experiment in freedom and liberty.

  9. aclay1 says:

    Stopping big states from dominating small states was one of the goals of the constitution. Would we really want Boxer, Feinstein, Schumer, and Burris to have super-sized power in the Senate? As a Californian, I am very happy to see our delegation have the same influence as those from Wyoming and New Hampshire.

  10. The problem is when small states dominates big states.

  11. Steve says:

    Equal representation of states in the Senate was an intentional check against regional domination of the country. The founders knew without it the country would be at risk of the ill effects of a pure democracy. Do we really want nine states to determine whether we drill in Alaska, bury radioactive waste in Vermont, or formally declare war on a foreign power? Two houses of Congress, one with population-based representation and one with an equal number for each state, was intentional and still necessary to ensure a healthy union of states. It’s no different in most state governments. Why should all of Pennsylvania be at the mercy of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia? Whether one thinks himself an American or a New Yorker is inconsequential.

  12. geezer117 says:

    To paraphrase the Founders: America will die by suicide when the majority vote to themselves the wealth of the minority.

    Your top 13 states, with 60% of the population, are largely controlled by a few large urban centers in each state. Without the Senate constructed as it is, America’s productive minority would be tyrannized by a few large cities.

  13. Geezer:

    That’s exactly wrong. It’s the smaller states that tend to be dominated by a single city. Omaha and Nebraska for example.

    By contrast California has dozens of large cities. So do Texas and Florida.

  14. Mitchell says:

    The two senators represent not only the population, but also the land, culture and uniqueness of the state…things that do not have a voice of their own at the ballot box. The founding fathers were far wiser in their construction of our government of this country than those who play government now, by ensuring that these smaller states do not surrender themselves to states like CA, NY and TX.

    The problem is that the senators do not represent the states they are from, but rather they represent the letter behind their name. The 17th Amendment needs to be repealed so that the state legislatures and ultimately the states have their voices returned to them instead of the US Senators being financially raised and supported by national interests and organizations whom have no understanding or cares for their respective state from whom they are grooming their senators, but instead are just interested in puppets.

    We are a Constitutional Republic with a voice for the minority as well as the majority protected by law, not a majority rules democracy and the the people in this country need to start to realize this and put our constitution back in its rightful place.

  15. Chrome says:

    Would those states that wish NOT to abide by these new rules be allowed to leave the union?

    Would those counties who do not wish to abide by the union be able to leave the State they are currently in and join with the States that wish to maintain autonomy?

    I could see the “redwood” state someone mentioned telling the rest of california to shove it and going with the State Rights group.

    Ultimately it is not outdated — the concerns of the smaller states was that the larger states would pass laws and policies that benefit THEM and screw the “uneducated rednecks” needs.
    In essence this is what everyone above is saying … SCREW the rural people. We want what we want!

    Of course that is what London did …
    And why the U.S. had a Revolution.

    In fact, in every great nation … it’s fall was a conflict between the Urban and rural populations.
    The urbanites ALWAYS lost.

    The world does not run on oil. It runs on people. People run on food. Oil is just what we use to get the food from the farms to the people.

    They separate … and within a century the old rural is now the power and the old urban is an aging reminder of what “was”.

  16. a conflict between the Urban and rural populations.
    The urbanites ALWAYS lost.

    I doubt that holds up to much scrutiny. Not even insofar as our own modest swathe of history. Urban north vs. Rural south for example. Or rural Mormons vs. Washington’s decrees earlier. Or the Whiskey Rebellion which failed. Or southern resistance to desegregation.

    Many civilizations succumbed to other equally “urban” invasions. Don’t really have time to go through too many of them but I doubt you’ll find much support for the rural over urban theory. Particularly when you step back and realize that human history could be viewed as a long trek from hunter gatherer camp to agricultural town to city.

  17. wildbillcuster says:

    Michael Reynolds: You are all wrong about Omaha dominating Nebraska, in our unicameral legislator the rural Senators run the show. As to the national Senate, why should large population states have all the power? This is a Republic not a Democracy. Also, it is only the people of the big cities who don’t have an attachment to their states. I have a question for the urbanites: Do you like to eat? Heat your homes? If so, show a little respect to the Heartland. If push came to shove in the USA, you coastal city folk would be starving and freezing in the dark real quick.

  18. Wild:

    I have nothing against rural folks. I just don’t know why a Nebraskan should have in effect 10 or 20 times the political influence I have through the Senate. It’s the rural folk who get special treatment for their rural agenda.

  19. Chrome says:

    The Rural vs Urban is part of the book by Galbraith on The Rise and Fall of great civilizations ( not positive on the text ) and is used as a textbook in colleges.

    It also mentions the two mandatory requirements to be a sustained super-power.

    Great Navy — positive food surplus.

  20. Steve says:

    I think Hamilton and Madison defend equal representation of states in the Senate quite well. Notice they emphasize that to the extent that equal representation preserves sovereignty of individual states and checks federal power, it is an advantage to large states as well as small. If the interests of 8 of the largest states were to unite in legislation against the 9th (say, California), the power of majority in the House of Representatives may potentially be checked in the Senate.

    Federalist No. 62–

    III. The equality of representation in the Senate is another point, which, being evidently the result of compromise between the opposite pretensions of the large and the small States, does not call for much discussion. If indeed it be right, that among a people thoroughly incorporated into one nation, every district ought to have a PROPORTIONAL share in the government, and that among independent and sovereign States, bound together by a simple league, the parties, however unequal in size, ought to have an EQUAL share in the common councils, it does not appear to be without some reason that in a compound republic, partaking both of the national and federal character, the government ought to be founded on a mixture of the principles of proportional and equal representation. But it is superfluous to try, by the standard of theory, a part of the Constitution which is allowed on all hands to be the result, not of theory, but “of a spirit of amity, and that mutual deference and concession which the peculiarity of our political situation rendered indispensable.” A common government, with powers equal to its objects, is called for by the voice, and still more loudly by the political situation, of America. A government founded on principles more consonant to the wishes of the larger States, is not likely to be obtained from the smaller States. The only option, then, for the former, lies between the proposed government and a government still more objectionable. Under this alternative, the advice of prudence must be to embrace the lesser evil; and, instead of indulging a fruitless anticipation of the possible mischiefs which may ensue, to contemplate rather the advantageous consequences which may qualify the sacrifice.

    In this spirit it may be remarked, that the equal vote allowed to each State is at once a constitutional recognition of the portion of sovereignty remaining in the individual States, and an instrument for preserving that residuary sovereignty. So far the equality ought to be no less acceptable to the large than to the small States; since they are not less solicitous to guard, by every possible expedient, against an improper consolidation of the States into one simple republic.

    Another advantage accruing from this ingredient in the constitution of the Senate is, the additional impediment it must prove against improper acts of legislation. No law or resolution can now be passed without the concurrence, first, of a majority of the people, and then, of a majority of the States. It must be acknowledged that this complicated check on legislation may in some instances be injurious as well as beneficial; and that the peculiar defense which it involves in favor of the smaller States, would be more rational, if any interests common to them, and distinct from those of the other States, would otherwise be exposed to peculiar danger. But as the larger States will always be able, by their power over the supplies, to defeat unreasonable exertions of this prerogative of the lesser States, and as the faculty and excess of law-making seem to be the diseases to which our governments are most liable, it is not impossible that this part of the Constitution may be more convenient in practice than it appears to many in contemplation.

  21. Chrome:

    It may be. Haven’t read it. But it feels like one of those things that sounds right but isn’t. History almost never submits to gross generalizations.

    The Aztec and Incan empires, for example, did not fall to rustics, they fell to Spaniards who far from representing the rural represented the king of Spain. The Iroquois fell to the Europeans, as did any number of African civilizations. The Hebrews were conquered by the Egyptians, later by the Babylonians. The Greeks were supplanted by the Romans. So were the Egyptians. The Japanese empire fell to the Americans, the Soviet empire could be said to have fallen to the west.

    I suppose you could point to the Tartars and Mongols as examples of the triumph of the rural folk over more urban civilizations. On the other hand there are as many or more examples of the urban civilizations simply erasing more agricultural civilizations.

    I suppose we’d have to agree on some fuzzy definitions, but a quick glance does not support the theory. In fact it seems to me that civilizations that are successfully invaded or supplanted more often fall to their more technologically advanced opponents.

    Re navies and food surpluses, I guess we’d have to know what qualifies as a “sustained” power. The Tsars never had much of a navy, neither did the Inca, Aztecs, Mongols, Turks, Tartars or most Chinese dynasties. Don’t know about food surpluses, but quite often empires were extended as part of a search for food.

  22. Alexander N. Bossy says:

    Your list of original states is still wrong. While New Hampshire had claimed Vermont, the territory was recognized as part of New York by royal order in 1764.

    It was New York, rather than New Hampshire which formally allowed some of its territory to join the union as the new state of Vermont in 1791.

  23. S. Dent says:

    I think we ought to go back to the Senate being populated by those ELECTED from the STATE level Legislatures, not a straight “popular vote” of registered voters.

    States with a bicameral legislative system, return BACK to one being a popular vote and apportioned by population, and the other back to a set and equal number from districts (example 50 counties in a state, 100 State Senators).

    What is WRONG with our current version, too much of an “American Idol” and not enough “trust worthiness”

    Call me a “Luddite,” but I prefer the OLD way, and maybe we do need a bit of a “bar” that has to be met, besides age and citizenship.

    Look at politics today, no “sane” person wants to run for any government office, the media at ALL LEVELS is out gunning for them. Everything about their lives from birth until the day they declared that they are a candidate is open for character assassination and deformation, when they are not the “chosen” by the Media (even then the Media will turn and feed on them)

    But at the same time, corrupt office holders and corrupt political insiders can and do get away unpunished for a multitude of crimes, including murder, (late Senator from Mass. for example).

    That’s how we can have an “American Idol” elected as President without a shred of experience or expertise, but because he was endorsed by ACORN and George Soros.

  24. The people are upset and angry at being sold out by politicians. The poll numbers are reflecting the fraud that Obama really is. Why people fell for the hope and change tripe, I don’t know. I guess that’s how Hitler came to power though. Get the people when they’re down, throw them a populist message, and waltz into the white house. Americans will be taking their country back in November, however. We are not and never will be a socialist nation. For more, see

  25. DJ FLY says:

    The headline prompted me to think that a discussion of the Senate’s over proportion of lawyers, multimillionaires, big time lobbyist wannabes, etc was to be the article’s point.

    Reading this and commentary elsewhere makes me believe that many should sue their grammar school districts, viz. the differences between to, too and two semm to have been skipped over or not graded.

  26. crankyoldlady says:

    You say it as though an unresponsive Senate is a bad thing. That slow-to-respond chamber has sidelined card check, slowed down cap-and-trade, and perhaps prevented a total government take over of health care.

    What’s so bad about that?

    The chamber was created to be a check on a House of Representatives expected to be rambunctious and majoritarian, running over the rights and interests of the minority. As it has proven to do time and time again throughout our history.

    Our central government was conceived as an institution with enumerated and focused powers – limited primarily to external affairs and the regulation of interstate commerce. The rest of government was supposed to be determined by our immediate neighbors.

    Hasn’t turned out that way. The notion that justice requires the distribution of roughly equitable resources to all Americans has led to more and more power devolving to our central government. we’ve lost something in that shift of power between neighborhood governance and the national government.

    That something is the ability of the individual to affect the governance of his or her community without checking to ensure that the feds haven’t preempted power in that area.

    The unresponsive Senate helps protect against an even faster takeover of our country by urban Americans who control the House of Representatives. Since this is a country of diverse philosophies and lifestyles, we can thank our founding fathers – and the Senate they created – that rural and small town Americans can still live by their own values.

    All hail the unresponsive Senate. It helps preserve freedom in the hinterlands.