clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

America’s anti-democratic Senate, in one number


The Senate is malapportioned to give small states like Wyoming exactly as many senators as large states like California.
Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call via 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.

Well, it’s official. Georgia Democratic Senators-elect Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff are going to Washington. The Senate will be evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans. That means that, with Democratic Vice President-elect Kamala Harris holding the tie-breaking vote, Democrats will have the narrowest possible majority in the Senate.

If the Senate were anything approaching a democratic institution, however, the Democratic Party would have a commanding majority in Congress’s upper house. The Senate is malapportioned to give small states like Wyoming exactly as many senators as large states like California — even though California has about 68 times as many residents as Wyoming.

Because smaller states tend to be whiter and more conservative than larger states, this malapportionment gives Republicans an enormous advantage in the fight for control of the Senate. Once Warnock and Ossoff take their seats, the Democratic half of the Senate will represent 41,549,808 more people than the Republican half.

I derived this number by using 2019 population estimates from the United States Census Bureau. In each state where both senators belong to the same party, I allocated the state’s entire population to that party. In states with split delegations, I allocated half of the state’s population to each party. I coded Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Angus King (I-ME) as Democrats. Although both men identify as independents, they caucus with the Democratic Party.

You can check my work using this spreadsheet.

It’s worth highlighting just how much of an advantage Republicans derive from Senate malapportionment. In the 25 most populous states, Democratic senators will hold a 29-21 seat majority once Warnock and Ossoff are sworn in. Republicans, meanwhile, have an identical 29-21 majority in the 25 least populous states.

The 25 most populous states contain nearly 84 percent of the 50 states’ total population. So 16 percent of the country controls half of the seats in the United States Senate (and that’s not accounting for the fact that DC, Puerto Rico, and several other US territories have no representation at all in Congress).

American democracy, in other words, is profoundly undemocratic. And it is undemocratic in large part because our Constitution does not provide for free and fair elections in the Senate. A commanding majority of the nation elected a Democrat to the United States Senate, but half of all senators will be Republicans.

Worse, because of the filibuster, virtually no legislation will pass Congress unless it wins the approval of at least 10 Republicans. If Senate Democrats all hang together, they will be able to pass an occasional spending bill through a process known as “reconciliation.” But no voting rights legislation, no legislation reforming the courts, and no legislation regulating business — or regulating much of anything else, for that matter — will pass Congress without at least some Republican approval.

Meanwhile, if Republicans want to block any of President-elect Joe Biden’s nominees to any court or to any executive branch position, they will only need to convince one Democrat to oppose that person and the nomination will fail.

This way of governing does not reflect the fact that Democrats represent nearly 42 million more people than Republicans do in the Senate. But due to Senate malapportionment, it’s what we’ll end up with anyway.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.