TeamPurple Political Explainer (10/9)- Proportionate Senate Representation

Perhaps you’ve seen lately people complaining that the State Of Wyoming has the same number of votes in the Senate as California, or that North Dakota has the same as New York, even though California and New York have substantially greater populations than Wyoming and North Dakota.  “THAT DOESN’T SEEM FAIR!” you may be thinking.  Well, it’s been that way since the very start of the country.  And it isn’t changing (and unless you live in California, Texas, Florida or Texas, this works to your benefit).

The pertinent issue comes from Article I of the Constitution, which describes Congress.

The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each State, elected by the people thereof, for six years; and each Senator shall have one vote.

The original clause called for the election of Senators from State Legislatures, but that was amended in 1913 for the direct election of Senators with the Seventeenth Amendment.  Otherwise, the clause is the same as it was originally designed by our founders.  Much like everything else the founders put into the Constitution, this came about by a huge compromise.

Small states had no interest in being a part of the new nation unless there was a forum where they could be equals.  So if you were from New Hampshire, Rhode Island or Connecticut at the time, you were a little fearful of being cast aside by New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia.  As James Madison put it in Federalist 62:

The equality of representation in the Senate is another point, which, being evidently the result of compromise between the opposite pretensions of the large and the small States, does not call for much discussion. . . .In this spirit it may be remarked, that the equal vote allowed to each state, is at once a constitutional recognition of the portion of sovereignty remaining in the individual states, and an instrument for preserving that residuary sovereignty. . . .Another advantage accruing from this ingredient in the constitution of the senate is, the additional impediment it must prove against improper acts of legislation. No law or resolution can now be passed without the concurrence, first, of a majority of the people, and then, of a majority of the states. It must be acknowledged that this complicated check on legislation may, in some instances, be injurious as well as beneficial; and that the peculiar defence which it involves in favour of the smaller states, would be more rational, if any interests common to them, and distinct from those of the other states, would otherwise be exposed to peculiar danger.

These issues play out even today.  Take agriculture for instance.  Many of the commonly Midwestern agriculture states have sparser populations.  Yet if they did not have a means to voice their concerns on a level playing field, it is very likely they would not be heard in a forum more skewed toward popular interests.  Dairy interests are big in both Wisconsin and California; if California could increase their representation, they would change policy solely for their benefit and prosper while Wisconsin languished. The Senate therefore requires legislators to consider the whole country, and not just populous regions. This works to everyone’s benefit, as to pass into law it must pass the House of Representatives where it gets a majority of all districts of equal representation, and the Senate which represents the majority of the states of regional representation.

The Senate is definitely seen as the most prestigious of the two houses specifically because of this exclusivity.  It is a club with only 100 members at one time.  But it is also somewhat undemocratic; a state like Wyoming with only 579,000 people has the same representation as California (almost 40 million).  However, that factor could have been considered when the state entered the union.  This process is discussed on Article IV, Clause 3:

New states may be admitted by the Congress into this union; but no new states shall be formed or erected within the jurisdiction of any other state; nor any state be formed by the junction of two or more states, or parts of states, without the consent of the legislatures of the states concerned as well as of the Congress.

So to make a new state, you need a majority of both Houses of Congress, just as any law, and the passage of the statehood referendum within the state.  This is much harder than it looks. With each new state, each existing state loses power within the Senate. Right now, each vote is 1/100th, but add a state and that Iowa junior Senator’s vote is 1/102th, and instead of needing 51 votes, you now need 52.  In addition, passing statehood bills are usually done to leverage or increase a vote on one side of the politics. Puerto Rico and Washington D.C. usually have trouble with this hurdle since those constituents tend to vote for the Democratic Party, which means GOP states have an interest in voting statehood bills down.  Before the Civil War, it was common to admit states in pairs (one north, one south) to ensure neither side got a majority, and whether they were admitted as a slave state or free state often caused harsh debates.  Post Civil War, when Republicans had overwhelming majorities, they admitted states out west to further solidify those gains, and for many eastern businessmen to exploit mineral rights more cheaply and easily.

There were exceptions of course.  California became a state before the Civil War largely due to the gold rush.  The negotiation with California to become a state left California essentially able to draw it’s own borders, which is why it is so large.  California has tried passing referendums numerous times to split the state in order to get better senate representation, always to fail, and never to be considered by other states in Congress. Texas is another state admitted, and by it’s statehood bill was allowed to split itself into up to 5 different states (this is still on the books by the way; for a great breakdown on this, check out Malcolm Gladwell’s “Revisionist History” podcast, “Divide and Conquer.”).  This doesn’t even cover the issue with Ohio’s Constitution not being ratified by Congress when it became a state in 1803, which nobody noticed until the state sesquicentennial celebration in 1953, requiring Congress to retroactively make Ohio a state at that time (people have even made arguments that the 16th Amendment allowing for an Income Tax is invalid because Ohio wasn’t a state– it never works, just pay your taxes).

In Wyoming’s case, the biggest issues against it becoming a state in 1889 appeared to be small rural population and the fact that women were granted the right to vote by the state’s Constitution (something all the men in Congress balked at, until 1920 when the 19th Amendment passed).  However, as with other states ready to be exploited, Senators craved the mineral wealth and it passed easily.

In order to change Senate representation would require a Constitutional Amendment.  That would require a 2/3 vote in both the House and the Senate, and 2/3 of the states to go along with it.  That isn’t going to happen.  There is no incentive for Wyoming, or really the majority of states, to reduce it’s voting power; the majority of states would be detrimentally impacted by such an amendment.

So it looks like the only way for Californians to fix this is to move en masse to Wyoming and even out the populations by the next census.  Until that happens though, Californians are just going to have to suck it up and endure it, or find ways to sacrifice their own egos for the benefit of Peoria.

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