© 2024 NPR Illinois
The Capital's Community & News Service
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

The U.S. Senate: The Most Unrepresentative Body

  ESSAY: You may know that the U.S. Senate is deeply divided and entrenched. Less obvious: the chamber is the least representative elected political body in the nation.

This month, the U.S. Senate will, for the second time, try former President Donald J. Trump for high crimes and misdemeanors. It will also play a pivotal role in President Joe Biden forming his government, pandemic relief, economic and foreign policy, and everything else that the federal government does. You know that this important body, like much of American politics these days, is deeply divided and entrenched. But what you likely don’t know is that the U.S. Senate is the most unrepresentative elected political institution is the country. Recent demographic trends and the January 6 insurrection have brought this bias into high relief.

In a representative democracy, we establish institutions to organize and empower the government to do what voters want it to do. We set up governmental positions and organizations, define the powers and limits of officials, write rules about who can vote and when, and so forth. And these institutions have consequences, both for politics and policy. These institutional consequences are most pervasive—and most subtle—for the rules that define our legislative bodies.

In a series of decisions in the early 1960s, the U.S .Supreme Court held that American legislatures should reflect the principle of “one person, one vote,” so that the population of each district of a given chamber should be about the same. For example, all of the Illinois state House districts have approximately 108,000 residents (as of the 2010 census), giving every resident the same proportion of representation in Springfield. Based on the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment, the basis of sovereignty in our system of government is the voter, not the geographical area. As Chief Justice Earl Warren argued in one of these cases, “legislators represent people, not trees or acres. Legislators are elected by voters, not farms or cities or economic interests."

However, today, more than 50 years after those commonsensical Supreme Court decisions, there is one American legislative body to which the one person, one vote principle does not apply—the U.S. Senate. The fact that the U.S. Constitution itself provides that each state will have two senators makes this arrangement, by definition, constitutional. Thus, even as the court threw out U.S. House, state, and local legislative districting plans because some districts were two, three, or four times as large as some others, it could not apply this principle to the U.S. Senate. 

The Senate violates the one person, one vote principle in the extreme. For example, California has 68 times the population of Wyoming—and, yes, they each have two U.S. senators. Lightly populated states are overrepresented in the Senate. Consider Alaska, Vermont, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, and Delaware, states that boast beautiful vistas and seascapes—and the fewest residents. They also can claim exceptional U.S. Senate representation. In fact, substantially fewer people live in these six states combined than live in Cook County, Illinois. You could even throw another Wyoming into the mix, and Cook County would still have more residents. In total, these lightly populated states have 12 U.S. Senators, or 12 percent of the entire Senate. Cook County, on the other hand, is represented by only about 40 percent each of two senators. Clearly, the average Wyomingite has far better representation in the US Senate than the average resident of south suburban Markham. As the figure at the top of the page shows, the smallest 10 states typically make up only about 3 percent of the U.S. population, while their senators constitute 20 percent of the U.S. Senate.

Importantly, this small-state bias is not politically neutral. Small states have many policy interests in common that are distinct from those of larger states. For example, these states have less urbanization than larger states, leading to policy differences on transportation (highways vs. mass transportation), gun control, agriculture, energy, criminal justice, and so on. For instance, this Senate tilt likely biases national policy toward building more new highways and having less gun control than if that body provided fair representation. 

Perhaps the most obvious political difference between small states and the rest of the country is party affiliation. While Democrats typically control a few small states (e.g., Delaware and Rhode Island), most are firmly Republican. The current 50-50 Senate provides us with very clear evidence of this bias. With this even partisan split, you might expect that the parties in the Senate would represent about equal numbers of Americans. But this is not so. Aside from the six states that have a senator from each party, 57 percent of the country live in states with two Democratic senators, while only 43 percent live in states with two GOP senators. In other words, with 43 percent of the population, the Senate GOP has 50 percent of the representation. This is a clear violation of the one person, one vote principle. 

Credit Christopher Z. Mooney / University of Illinois Chicago/IGPA
University of Illinois Chicago/IGPA

Another factor central to American politics distinguishes the smallest states-- race. In these days of social justice activism and the resurgence of terrorist white supremacy groups, it is important to note that, on average, small states have far fewer minorities and immigrants than does the nation as a whole. For example, the five smallest solidly GOP states (AK, ID, ND, SD, and WY) have an average non-Hispanic white population of 79 percent, while that figure is about 60 percent for the entire country. Consider, for example, that in 1970, the national non-Hispanic white population was about 88 percent. In other words, these states reflect the racial makeup of the US in the 1980s, not the 2020s. The figure in the body of the story also shows that while the smallest 10 states have long been whiter than the nation as a whole, this gap increased in the 21st century. And note that the highly diverse states of Hawaii and Alaska are typically among the smallest 10 states. Without these, the differences from the nation as a whole would be much greater.

At this point, one might ask, why was this two-per-state Senate rule was established in the first place? To answer that, we have to look to the Constitutional Convention of 1787, where small states (e.g., Rhode Island) were concerned that large states (e.g., Virginia) would dominate national politics if majorities always controlled the new American government. The central question was (and is), do states have some special sovereignty or are they just geographical areas? Of course, 1787 was just shortly after the then-colonies were largely independent of one another (even if subject to the will of the British crown). In this period, giving the states special protections (such as two Senate seats) made political sense. Over 234 years later, and after the Supreme Court held that voters were sovereign, this protection seems anachronistic. 

The Senate’s small-state bias is likely to get worse with time. With the continued migration from small town and rural America to our urban centers, and with the American population steadily diversifying, the small, white, and solidly Republican states will become less and less relevant to the political life of the nation in a variety of ways. Their representation in the US House will shrink, as will their influence on presidential elections. But their influence in the Senate will grow increasingly disproportionate to their population.

Any solution to this small-state bias in the U.S. Senate would require constitutional amendment—and the small states could have veto power over this. Thus, the future of the Senate may involve an entrenched reactionary rump of 10-20 GOP senators from small states, especially in the rural west, trying to drag modern American society back into an earlier era. This does not bode well for a civil politics—or majority rule.

Christopher Z. Mooney is a political science professor at the University of Illinois Chicago and an expert at the Institute of Government and Public Affairs..

Related Stories