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America’s anti-democratic Senate, by the numbers

If the United States chose its leaders in free and fair elections, Republicans would be firmly out of power.

Republicans will control at least 50 seats in the incoming Senate.
Jon Cherry/Getty Images
Ian Millhiser is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he focuses on the Supreme Court, the Constitution, and the decline of liberal democracy in the United States. He received a JD from Duke University and is the author of two books on the Supreme Court.

Democrats defeated Republican senators in Arizona and Colorado this year, while Republicans gained a Senate seat in Alabama.

That means that Republicans will control at least 50 seats in the incoming Senate, out of 100 total, assuming Republican incumbents Sens. Thom Tillis (NC) and Dan Sullivan (AK) keep their seats, as seems likely. Both of Georgia’s Senate seats are likely to be decided in runoff elections in January.

Wins in North Carolina and Georgia would give Republicans the Senate majority — something they would hold only because Congress’s upper house is malapportioned to give small states like Wyoming exactly as many senators as large states like California, even though California has more than 68 times as many people as Wyoming.

In the incoming Senate, Democratic senators will represent at least 20,314,962 more people than their Republican counterparts — and that’s if we assume that Republicans win both runoff elections in Georgia. If the two Georgia seats go to the Democrats, the Senate will be split 50-50, but the Democratic half will represent 41,549,808 more people than the Republican half.

I derived these numbers using 2019 population estimates by the United States Census Bureau. In states where both senators caucus with the same party, I allocated the state’s entire population to that party. In states where the Senate delegation is split, I allocated half of the state’s population to each party. Although Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Angus King (I-ME) identify as independent, both Sanders and King caucus with Democrats. So I coded them as Democratic senators.

You can check my work using this spreadsheet.

One other fact is worth noting. In the current Senate, Democrats control a majority of the seats from the most populous half of the states (26-24). Republicans owe their current majority to a crushing 29-21 lead in the least populous half of the states. In the new Senate, Democrats will control between 27 and 29 seats from the most populous half, depending on who prevails in the Georgia runoffs.

Republicans, in other words, would not be in the majority now — and they certainly would not be in the majority next year — if not for malapportionment.

The implications of this malapportionment are breathtaking. Among other things, Justices Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett were all nominated by a president who lost the popular vote and confirmed by a bloc of senators who represent less than half of the country. If the United States chose its leaders in free and fair elections, none of these individuals would serve on the Supreme Court — and it is likely that Democratic appointees would have a majority on the Court.

Similarly, if Republicans control the Senate in 2021, the GOP will have the power to prevent Joe Biden from confirming a Cabinet, to block everyone Biden nominates to the federal bench, to prevent Biden from signing any legislation, and even to shut down the government.

This is not what the American people voted for in November. But it is what a deeply broken Constitution, which effectively gives extra Senate seats to white conservatives in small states, has given us.