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.