Another Reason to Reform the Senate

As the topic of the distinctly undemocratic Senate has garnered increased attention in the press, we wanted to repost a piece from NDN's spring '12 researcher Leslie Ogden. She previously published this op-ed in the Tufts Daily covering Senate's small state bias, and is worth revisiting as we think about our representation in government: 

"The list of reasons why Americans feel their politics are broken is long and growing. Here’s one of many: The U.S. Senate, which due to the way the U.S. population has grown and settled, has developed a “small state bias” so grave that it is on the verge of becoming an undemocratic institution. The issue is serious enough that it has become necessary to question whether major reform of Congress, and particularly the Senate, is needed.

According to the 2010 census, it is now the case that half of the United States’ population lives in just nine states, with the other half of America living in the other 41 states. While the voters in these top nine states have equal representation in the House with 223 Representatives (the other half has 212), in the Senate it is a different story. Because of this population distribution, the half of the U.S. living in the largest nine states is represented by 18 Senators. The other half of the country living in the other 41 states has 82 Senators, more than four times as many. You don’t have to be good at math to see how much less representation in Congress those living in the big states have today.

Let’s take a closer look at this dynamic by examining California. With a population of about 37 million, California has more than 66 times the population of the smallest state, Wyoming, which has 563,626 people. California has 53 Representatives, and two Senators; Wyoming, one Representative and two Senators. So despite having 66 times the population of Wyoming, California has only 53 times the number of Representatives and an equal number in the Senate.

Furthermore, the four smallest states combined have eight Senators, giving California only a quarter as many Senators as Alaska, North Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming, even though California has 14 times the population of these states combined.

In creating our bicameral legislative system, the founding fathers attempted to balance the issue of big/little states by creating a House whose representation was based on population and a Senate based on proportionality. In The Federalist Papers, James Madison explains his intent to create a “mixture of principles of proportional and equal representation,” particularly “among a people thoroughly incorporated into one nation, [in which] every district ought to have a proportional share in the government.” In essence, to create an equal vote that is a “constitutional recognition of the portion of sovereignty remaining in the individual States.”

However, due to the growth of the number of states in the U.S. and the migration and expansion of our population, the big/little state balance in the Senate has become approximately one-to-four, creating a “small state bias.” This small state bias is additionally exacerbated by the proportional allocation of Congressional seats, which immediately gives each state one Representative, regardless of population. This means that while California has more than 66 times the population of Wyoming, as we saw, it only has 53 times more Congressional seats. Therefore, even in the House, large states do not receive the proper amount of representatives because each state is automatically allocated a Congressman, regardless of the mathematical proportion. The net result of this is that smaller, more rural and less demographically diverse populations in the U.S. have exaggerated influence in Congress today.

Where this small state bias becomes undemocratic is on issues that affect large and small states very differently. Immigration reform is a good example. Most of the new migrants who have come to the U.S. in this last wave of very heavy immigration have ended up in the large states. Seventy percent of Hispanics, for example, reside in the top nine most populous states. The states where most recent migrants and their families live have somewhere between 20 and 30 Senators representing them in Congress today even though they have a majority of the U.S. population. The other states, with a minority of the U.S. population, have between 70 and 80 Senators representing them. Despite the fact that poll after poll show that a clear majority of Americans support “comprehensive immigration reform,” it has been extremely difficult to get it passed through Congress in recent years. The voices of the majority who support immigration reform are wildly underrepresented in the current design of our Congress.

At a time when societies around the world are working hard to improve their own civic institutions, it would be a welcome sign for the world’s most important democracy, the United States, to help inspire this process by updating and renewing its own."