Senate-affront-democracy

A Wyoming Resident’s Vote for Senator is 68 Times as Influential as a Californian’s

You may have heard the notion before, relayed as an inflammatory statistic at a cocktail party or mentioned during a lecture in your US Gov 101 class. It goes like this: Wyoming voters enjoy 68 times the representation a Californian does, because each state in the US gets two senators, regardless of its population. Wyoming, which is home to just over 560,000 people, gets two senators. California, where 37 million people live, also gets two senators.

And these senators’ votes, of course, carry equal weight when cast in favor of, or against bills on the Senate floor. These senators get equal say in guiding the legislative process in that body. In other words, a senator representing the demands of 37 million people has just as much influence as the senator representing half a million, or 1/68th that many. The end effect is that the desires and demands of those 37 million people have a far less potent outlet.

To understand why such an illogical precept came to lie at the very core of the American political process, let’s turn to Henrik Hertzberg, who has been doing a series of posts on the Federalist Papers:

[Alexander] Hamilton hated—hated—the compromise under which the Constitutional Convention was blackmailed into giving every state the same number of senators regardless of population … But it wasn’t just the future Federalist party stalwart Hamilton who hated the two-senators-per-state provision. The future Democratic-Republican party boss Madison hated it, too. At the time, the infant nation’s most populous state had around twelve times as many people as its least populous. To Madison and Hamilton, the idea that one citizen should have twelve times as much representation in the Senate as another citizen, simply because they lived in different places, was self-evidently offensive and absurd. (Two hundred and twenty years later, the absurdity is five and a half times worse: a Wyoming voter gets sixty-eight times more representation in the Senate than a Californian.)

Hamilton and Madison (Washington, too, by the way; I’m not sure about Jay) strongly favored what was then called “proportional representation.“

The smaller states in the Union were adamant about the two-senator-per-state rule — as Hertzberg says, they made it a non-negotiable demand. Hamilton felt it was a necessary, worthwhile comprimise to secure the ratifying the Constitution — but he wasn’t happy about it. And the result of that compromise persists to this day; a Wyoming voter bears considerably more influence on the Senate than a Californian one. Debates can be held over whether the Senate is an effective political body — but it’s harder to argue it’s a truly democratic one.

About Brian Merchant

Brian Merchant is a founding editor of the Utopianist.. When he's not helming the Utopianist, he is TreeHugger's politics writer, contributes the Getting Samy Out of Burma column to GOOD.is, and freelances for the likes of Salon and Paste. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

64 thoughts on “A Wyoming Resident’s Vote for Senator is 68 Times as Influential as a Californian’s

  1. Isn’t the balance of this found via the House of Representatives? I thought that was the justification. Maybe NorCal should secede from California to get a couple more senate seats?

  2. I don’t really understand what the point you are trying to make is. The differing rules regarding population representation in the House and Senate were designed to balance the power of the states. In 1790, a small state, such as Delaware, had just one House representative, while a large state, such as Virginia, had ten House representatives. To counteract this, the Senate had two members per state no matter the population. What you don’t seem to understand is the way people thought back in 1790. People thought of themselves as residents of their STATES, not residents of AMERICA. This is why the Senate is designed this way. If America did away with proportional representation in the House, then what incentive would there be for people to live in a small state, or a better question would be what incentive would there be for the state to be in America altogether? Every state is unique, has their own identity, their own interests and their own problems. That is why they need a voice in Congress. So while there might be 68 times less people in Wyoming than in California, the people in Wyoming still count, right? And by the way, California has fifty three times as many House members than Wyoming does. So sure, California might represented 68 times less in the Senate as Wyoming, but Wyoming is represented 53 times less in the House than California. Was it (and is it) an ideal situation? No. The founders acknowledged that. The Constitution’s goal is to create a “more perfect union,” not a perfect one. Not everything will work perfectly, and not everyone will be happy all of the time. But to call it undemocratic is absurd. The balance as it is is democratic. If both houses of Congress were either proportionally represented (like the House) or not proportionally represented (like the Senate), then it would be undemocratic. But the fact that this balance exists is what has kept America going. And after 222 years, I’d say it has worked out pretty well.

  3. “But to call it undemocratic is absurd.”

    Correct, but only those of us who understand why the Constitution is a document of negative rights can see the absurdity.

    Current writers on this subject have evidently never heard of “the tyranny of the majority.”

  4. Missing from this discussion are a couple points I’m surprised no one had acknowledged, but which are essential to the topic.

    Originally two senators represented each state government – NOT the voters. As noted by one of the commenters, people thought of themselves as citizens of their state, and the idea of federalism was that the U.S. was a union of sovereign states. That has devolved today so that states are merely the equivalent of provinces.

    The House represented the people, hence the proportional system (which is also outdated for practical reasons – we couldn’t have the necessary number of reps so we cap it at 435). Senators represented the state governments from whom authority was granted to a supposedly “weak” federal government charged with defense and other limited aspects of common interests crossing state lines.

    In recognizing states a entities bestowing equal authority to a federal government, it can be easily seen why proportionality by population did not apply.

    The other important reason for non-proportionality in the senate balancing out the proportional representation in the house (mentioned by Sam) is that the smaller states feared a tyranny of the majority referenced by Owen. Proportional power unrestrained would always mean the interests of the larger, more populous states would sweep aside those of the less populous states whenever a conflict of interests arose.

    Naturally, it didn’t take long (in relative, historic terms) for 19th century liberals to tamper with the system and in 1913 the 17th Amendment established direct election of United States Senators by popular vote, which today remains the current situation.

    Many of us believe with cause that the current scenario of weakened states rights in the face of a powerful federal behemoth is the result of that amendment. The state ceased to have representation at the federal level and therefore the interests of the sovereign states was subjugated to the control of the majority will of the population. Since voters are far more easily misled, confused, and manipulated than the state governments with a stake in keeping a lid on burgeoning power, we as a nation have lost sight (forgotten) in the 100 years since the true balanced form of our democratic republic.

    If anything, I support the repeal of the 17th amendment. Let’s chain the monster in Washington D.C. to the basement wall.

  5. Phil, I agree with what most of what you said, but I do not support the repeal of the 17th amendment. Yes, this would put more power in the hands of the state government, but is that really what we want? In the 1790’s, people saw the federal government as somewhat of an irrelevant institution, as their power had not yet developed. The true power was in the hands of the state government. The consideration put into the vote for state legislature in the 1790’s is probably the equivalent to the consideration put into the vote for president today. Through time, however, the state government has, mostly unwillingly, let the federal government take power. Programs such as Medicare and Social Security didn’t necessarily take anything away from the states, but it added to the power of federal government. This is why repeal of the 17th is a bad idea. Statistics have shown that more people vote in Congressional and Presidential elections than in state elections. If this trend continues with a repeal of the 17th, the choosing of our senators will be in the hands of those who we did not carefully vote for. While people still don’t pay as much attention to elections as they should, people do care more about Senatorial elections than they do about state legislature elections.

    1. Sam, I see where you are placing your focus, and from that perspective I understand your position.

      I’m looking at the 17th amendment as having played a major role in that unwilling surrender of power by the states to the feds which you mentioned.

      The federal government now is highly intrusive in almost all areas of life, which contradicts the founder’s original vision and at least the first century of the nation’s existence.

      Given a choice between the two, I’d place reigning in the federal government (that is, drastically pruning it back to its originally intended domain) over my concern that enough voters won’t vote wisely in state elections.

      The problem with your thinking, it seems to me, is that selection of senators won’t be in the hands of voters. You are correct – it wouldn’t be, and wasn’t ever intended to be. Senators were intended to represent the interests and concerns of the state governments conferring power on the federal entity, and therefore to keep control of it as and entity serving the states and the people. Each house had its purpose, and the senate wasn’t about representing directly the will of voters. This was a democratic republic, not a democracy only, and the bicameral design protected the will of the people in the House and also protected the states by prevented the federal government from running roughshod over them.

      The 17th amendment failed to preserve that balance, although I believe it did exactly as intended – it gradually diluted states as the original source of authority and power until the 10th Amendment is now a joke.

      Under the original system – and if the 17th amendment were repealed – voters in each state would be very focused on whom they elected to state legislatures, who in turn voted for U.S. Senators. That new reality – combined with an informed electorate armed with the Internet – would be that voters would pay attention to local politics much more, because ultimately that would be where the action is (on that side of the bicameral system).

      I think the benefits of pruning Big Government (major reduction in expenditures, debt, and ultimately taxes) back to the stump far outweigh the risks at the local level, which can be dealt with much more easily than the current behemoth in D.C.

  6. You do raise some good points. The senate was created to protect the greater interests of the states in general (or the entire country as one), and the House was created for the interests of the people themselves.
    The problem with a possible repeal of the 17th amendment (and the problem still exists in today’s system) is that corruption will loom. Of course, corruption is inevitable, but it still should be fought. Currently, we elect our senators, which means the residents of states do not have to be as vigilant with their state politicians, as they are not choosing their senators. This lack of vigilance lets state politicians get away with more, as the public is not paying as much attention to them. However, if the states were to elect the senators, there would be a great deal of corruption and controversy in the selection of those senators. The senators could bribe members of the stat legislature, get them good government or lobbying firm jobs, etc. If this were to happen, Congress and the States would both recognize the corruption that would happen, so there should be some laws put in place to regulate the process of states electing senators. Another controversy would arise. Is it the responsibility of the individual states or the federal government to regulate the State Legislature’s election of senators? While this issue probably was not as much of an issue from 1790-1913 as it would be now, the power of the federal government has dramatically expended since 1913, and they could attempt to regulate states elections of senators over all fifty states.

  7. Sam, corruption already exists at thw atate level. Hell, it thrives there. Anyone not seeing corruption at the state level is simply not looking.

    That said, I understand your concern. However, it seems where we differ is which result is the more serious problem.

    By restoring the balance between state/federal control of the national direction of government, we realign governance with the Constitutional principles designed by the Founders, cut spending, reduce the national debt, cut taxs, and free up money for the growth in jobs and of the economy overall.

    Certainly, an educated citizenry is the best solution to most problems in governance, and this extends to the potential situation you fear if the 17th amendment is repealed (which is not likely, anyway). I submit, however, that the age of the Internet has provided citizens with multiple sources for information, bypassing the momopoly on ideas imposed for so long by a coalition of big federal government types (elected and formerly elected officials – aka lobbyists – along with bureaucrats) and a media which has behaved like cheerleaders for most big government intiatives and simply pliant in the face of things about which they’re unhappy or are unsure.

    Today’s citizenry has the potential to be more informed than any since the first 50 years of the republic. The Internet provides the tools to keep citizens active in state elections, combined with the knowledge that the state elections lead to U.S. senate votes.

    However, it’s all academic because I think it will never happen.

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