Is the Senate obsolete?

The Senate is unfair by design. Is it still what the founding fathers intended?

Photo by Ian Hutchinson on Unsplash

Just a Californian

I’m from the most populous state in the union. I’m glad to have grown up in such a diverse place. But, being from a big state doesn’t make me better than anyone else. Just because I live in California doesn’t mean my voice deserves to be louder. I live in California because it’s where I was born. Chance dropped me here. But, being from California made me think differently about the United States Senate and how it represents the people of this country.

A few months ago I came across a map of a recent Missouri election and I was immediately interested. The map showed how each county in Missouri voted on whether or not to expand Medicaid.

Missouri election map for a measure to expand Medicaid

If you’re new to looking at election maps, here’s a question: Can you guess where Missouri’s major cities are? If you guessed the green counties, you’re right. It’s striking to look at this map and see the overwhelming majority of counties vote against a measure, but the measure passes because the majority of people voted for it. Those people are clustered in major cities. Odd as it looks, this is the map of equality. Everyone has a vote, and that vote counts the same no matter where you’re from.

After looking at this map a little longer, something else caught my eye. Did you see it? It’s up near the top. I’m talking about the total number of votes. 1,239,051 total votes. That number seemed pretty small for an entire state’s worth of voters. I got curious.

I wanted to find a section of California representing that same number of Missouri voters. Luckily, I only needed to look as far as my own backyard. My native Orange County, CA boasts a population of 3,175,692. And, with a safe voting turnout estimate of 40%, we get a voting population approximately the size of Missouri.

In this example, we have roughly the same number of people voting in Orange County and Missouri. But, Missouri residents get to elect two representatives to carry their voice to the United States Senate. As an Orange County resident, I get to vote on much more trivial things like increasing the OC bus route frequency. With two equal voting populations, why should someone from one group get more representation in the Senate just because of where they live? Aren’t we all supposed to be equal?

Our representation is just different

There’s a dark joke in American politics that says, “Of course, all Americans are equal. Some are just more equal than others.” A similar joke is unwittingly made by Michael Scott on The Office. During a dispute between two employees over who outranks whom. To settle the argument, one of the employees asks Michael Scott, the boss, ”Which one of us gets paid more?” To which Scott replies, “It’s not about more or less, your pay is just different.”

The Michael Scott line hits a little harder because money (unlike equality) is not an abstract value. It’s a hard number. I wondered if I could apply this ‘hard number’ principle to how we think about representation in the Senate.

A quick refresher on the Senate: Each state, regardless of population, is represented by two senators. There are currently 50 states. That means 100 senators representing 328,239,523 Americans. But, as you probably guessed, each senator does not represent the same number of people. This means not all United States citizens are represented equally in the United States Senate. Believe it or not, that’s how some of the founding fathers wanted it, but we’ll discuss that later.

Rather than talk about it in abstract terms of equality and representation, let’s look at the numbers. By doing some simple math, we can assign a ‘power rating’ to each citizen depending on which state they live in and the state’s 2020 voting population. This power rating assigns a number a resident’s Senate representation. The higher the number, the more represented that person is in the Senate and the more power they have over what the Senate does.

Let’s look at an extreme example to solidify this power rating idea. Take Wyoming (the least populous state) and California (the most populous state). Each state has 2 senators, each of those senators’ votes count equally. However:

  • The 2 California senators represent 17,115,725 voters
  • The 2 Wyoming senators represent 267,050 voters

By taking 2 senators, dividing their Senatorial power between the voting population of their state, and scaling those numbers up for readability, we get a power rating for the citizens of each state.

  • The average California voter has a Senate power rating of 1.16
  • The average Wyoming voter has a Senate power rating of 64.1

This means the average Wyomingite carries 55 times more senatorial power than the average Californian. Put another way, if Senate legislation was settled by popular vote, each Wyomingite would get 55 votes while each Californian would only get 1 vote.

Photo by Eduardo Sánchez on Unsplash

Let’s look at Senate inequality from another perspective. If you remember, California had 17,115,725 voters in the 2020 election and are represented by 2 senators. If you wanted to build a group of voters from other states to match the number of California voters, you’d need to round up every 2020 voter from:

  • Idaho
  • Montana
  • Wyoming
  • North Dakota
  • South Dakota
  • Nebraska
  • Utah
  • Kansas
  • Oklahoma
  • Iowa
  • Missouri
  • Arkansas
  • Lousiana
  • West Virginia

…and you’d have 16,387,623 voters, about 800,000 voters shy of California.

Here, we have two groups of American citizens. They are roughly equal size. One group is represented by 2 senators. The other is represented by 28 senators. I confessed up front, this piqued my interest because I’m a Californian.

Senate? I barely know it!

We assigned some hard numbers to Senate inequality. But, is this how the founding fathers intended things to work? The short answer is: sort of. Let’s dive into what the constitutional framers wanted from the Senate and whether things are still on track.

If we look at how the framers thought about the Senate as a house of congress, we see they wanted it to be ‘an independent body of responsible citizens who would share power with the president and the House of Representatives.’ Some may argue we’re stretching the definition of responsible citizens, but that’s beside the point. We also know some of the founders wanted the Senate to act as a protective barrier to keep smaller states from getting pushed around. According to the Senate’s own website

To balance power between the large and small states, the Constitution’s framers agreed that states would be represented equally in the Senate and in proportion to their populations in the House. Further preserving the authority of individual states, they provided that state legislatures would elect senators.

Larger states imposing their will on smaller states was a very real fear for the founders. State liberty was important because the colonies were founded on very different principles. For example, some northern colonies were founded as religious sanctuaries while southern colonies were founded primarily as entrepreneurial ventures. With such vastly different priorities from state to state, it makes sense to provide small states a mechanism to defend their interests from the will of large states.

But, let’s look at what the framers meant when they were talking about ‘large states’ and ‘small states.’ Using population data from 1770, a mere 8 years before the framers designed the Senate, we can calculate the power ratings for citizens back then. In 1770…

  • 2 Virginia senators represented 447,016 voters
  • 2 Georgian senators represented 23,375 voters

Now, let’s crunch these numbers to get the power ratings…

  • The average Virginian voter in 1770 had a Senate power rating of 4.47
  • The average Georgian voter in 1770 had a Senate power rating of 85.56

This means the average 1770 Georgian carried 19 times more senatorial power than the average 1770 Virginian. This is a far cry from today’s disparity between Wyoming and California (55 times more power). And, this is before we take into account that Georgia had only been seriously settled by non-indigenous people for three decades. It’s safe to assume that the framers counted on the Georgian population expanding rapidly to be on par with the other states.

I don’t think the framers counted on population differences increasing so dramatically that a mere 5% of the country’s population would control 30% of the Senate while 27% of the country’s population only controls 6% of the Senate, as is the case today. The Senate is unfair by design. But, as these numbers suggest, it is now unjust.

Many of the inequities that exist in the Senate also exist to a slightly lesser extent in the Electoral College (photo by Clay Banks)

So what?

The United States Senate is a machine of inequity, so what? At the end of the day, Senate inequality means 47% of the country can control 52% of the Senate. That may sound pretty tolerable to you. 47% doesn’t seem that far away from a majority. However, when we look at hard numbers, the difference between 47% of the US population and 53% of the US population is 20,167,163 people. With a 47% minority controlling the Senate, 20 million voices are left unheard simply because of where they live.

To frame it another way, imagine if we abolished Senators from Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming. Add up the populations of those states, and you’re looking at about 20 million people. That would be unacceptable.

How does Senate inequality affect the work of the legislature? Have you noticed how it feels like government is doing less and less? Doesn’t it seem like politicians can’t agree on anything? There’s a reason for that: representative inequality in the Senate.

A minority of Americans controlling a Senate majority encourages inevitable obstructionism. A minority party can pretty easily control the Senate, but not the House of Representatives or the Presidency.

By only controlling the Senate, a party can’t really accomplish anything, but they can stop almost everything. Take a look at how many policies are widely supported by Americans, but have not received a vote in the Senate. Gun control, climate regulation, and increasing the federal minimum wage are a few policies that come to mind.

This tendency towards obstruction in the Senate grows from the controlling minority’s inability to legislate and their complete control over what makes it to the Senate floor for a vote. Not enough people want to play the minority’s game, but they sure as hell aren’t letting the majority play their’s either.

Everyone’s at this party, and it’s awful

While this feels like a partisan issue, it’s not. American politics are divided less and less by state lines. Senate inequality should upset the Republican in California as much as the Democrat in Texas. The average person in Bakersfield, California is more ideologically and culturally similar to a rural Iowan than the average Angelino. The hunter in Montana cares about natural conservation as much as the LA surfer. These voices deserve to be united.

Red states and Blue states are fading. Americans are more nuanced than that. So why does the Senate insist on dividing power so unequally across state lines? When the balance of power doesn’t reflect the reality of the nation, it leads to obstruction and bickering. By allowing government to accurately reflect the idealogical makeup of the citizenry, we can begin to understand what is important to each other. We can’t have the right conversations until our voices are the right volume.

Photo by Michal Matlon on Unsplash

Moving forward

The discussion over equal representation is older than the United States. In the early summer of 1776 a man stood in front of his colleagues and said the following:

Let the smaller Colonies give equal money and men, and then have an equal vote. But if they have an equal vote without bearing equal burdens, a confederation upon such iniquitous principles will never last long.

That man was Benjamin Franklin.

I’m not here to tell you exactly how we should fix this. I have a few ideas. None of them are all that feasible. We could abolish the Senate entirely and run legislation with a single house of congress that more accurately represents the country. We could divide up states so Senate power ratings are more in line with what the founders intended. Either of these options would require a movement of heaven and earth and, in the words of Mulaney, “everyone getting really cool about a lot of stuff really quickly.”

Did the suggestions in the previous paragraph get your hackles up? Good. That means you have an opinion on what we should do. Figure out what that opinion is and talk about it. This is important. We should care about everyone being heard and justly represented. We need to understand where our common values are and we need to be able to talk through them, in good faith, without clinging to ideology or power.

The Senate was designed as a means of protecting smaller states from the will of larger states. But, it has mutated into a tool for a minority of Americans to hold the rest of the country hostage. The United States has changed drastically in the last 240 years. Just as many parts of the federal government have become obsolete and been updated, the Senate also requires serious reform.

Trying to make sense of this wild, wonderful world.

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