The USA has a systemic representation problem, built into the foundations of our government and electoral systems. Originally, Senators weren’t elected by the people at all, and there isn’t a rule stating that the President of all the USA has to be chosen by all the USA, only the representatives from the states, in whatever way they wish to choose that.
Recently we covered how districting, state population differences and winner take all single seat elections disenfranchise the voice of millions of Americans, Republican, Democrat or neither. You can find that article here:
Today we’re going to look at a much more slanted system, the US Senate. This is an area of much debate, be it intention, role or even appropriateness of being representative or not of this body. We’ll explore the theory below, as well as look at the actual results from the 2020 election and follow-ups.
Background & Overall
The US Senate, unlike other parts of our government, was always planned to slant favorably towards the lower population states. This was done to give the smaller territories incentive to join the union without being overruled by larger ones. Back in 1786, the states were mini-nations themselves, each with unique laws, traits and visions of the future nation. To submit to a single federal authority, each had to believe in their power to influence it, somewhat equally. Thus the idea of the House being 100% representative of the populations, and the Senate being 100% representative of each state’s equality.
Every state would have 2 Senators, no more and no less. This meant that every individual state had the same say in lawmaking as the next, regardless of population. A seemingly good decision, this came with one large flaw: smaller states would perpetually have far more representation per inhabitant of that state as any other, meaning that for national laws, there was a good chance that the minority of people in the nation would decide what would become law, not the majority. In an effort to combat tyranny of the majority, we sowed the seeds for tyranny of the minority.
But it wasn’t something that was too noticeable, at first. The population differences weren’t so extreme, meaning in actuality 38% of the nation (the least populated states) controlled half of the Senators, with the other 62% controlling the other half. The lower population states rarely joined forces together except when pushing against laws specifically targeting smaller states, and thus general policy flowed with different alliances of Senators forming for different causes.
This began to break down with the hardening of party lines between Democrats and Republicans. Democrats began to consolidate power in larger cities and states, pushing for policies popular with the majority of people. Republicans retreated to rural areas and small population states, pushing for policies popular with smaller high-voting-level populations. This has led to the situation today, where the majority of smaller states tend to vote for Republicans, and vice versa for Democrats.
We can see this reflected in the 2020 results. Here is a map of the states and who won which race:
And here is a breakdown of “blue state” Minnesota (MN):
All those red districts contain far less people in it than the blue ones, and yet looking at this map may lead you to wonder how Democrats won the state, given so much of it is Red. This is a microcosm of the national problem; within the state, this is solved because it is the entirety of the population that matters, not where they live, that determines who is elected Senator. But for the nation as a whole, you look at the first image and see that Republicans won far more states and thus got more Senators. Does that mean they had more votes, more support, and that our national laws will reflect the national will?
No, and the numbers bear that out.
Of the 35 seats available, Republicans took 20 and Democrats took 15. 43,619,452 million Americans voted for a Republican Senator. 41,940,380 million Americans voted for a Democrat Senator. To put that in effective perspective, while winning 49% of the vote, Democrats only got 42% of the seats, for a swing of 4 seats in the Republicans’ favor. To put that difference in population terms, Republicans got the equivalent of 9,778,267 “phantom votes” based solely on how the system is set up.
This means that for every Senate seat won in 2020, Democrats needed 600,000 more votes than Republicans did.
But this doesn’t have to be this way every election, right? It’s not like Republicans regularly focus on smaller population states and use that advantage to over-inflate their appeal to the American people as a whole? To look into that, we have to see how many of these races were in the top or lower populated 50 states, how many of the 35 were in each, who won them and is this a trend. And for that, we need some data.
States By Population and Voting information
Below is a chart of US states by population, the population of that state, whether they participated in the 2020 election and how many people voted for which party in that state. Also included is how much of the population they contain, how many times the average population (6,575,426 people) they are, and their voting patterns as red, blue or purple states. Because of the nature of statistics, I will also describe how many of each state would fit within the average population state (for magnitude). We will use this for our analysis.
|State||Population||% Tot Pop||Pop vs Avg||States in Avg||State Type||Votes Democrat||Votes Republican|
The population of the USA is heavily skewed, with the top four states containing a third of the US population, and the top nine containing half. In essence this means that 18 Senators represent half the population of the USA, with the other 72 representing the other half.
These magnitudes can be seen in how far from the average population norm each state is. While some states are significantly larger in population (CA with 6 times, TX with 4.5, Florida with 3.3 and New York with 3) there are far more states which are significantly under the average population levels, 15 of them, ranging from magnitude factor 3 to 11.3.
6 of the upper 25 population states are Red states, with 1 of the significantly larger states being Red. 8 of the upper 25 population states are Blue States, with 2 of the significantly larger states being Blue.
14 of the lower 25 population states are Red states, with 8 of the 15 significantly smaller states also being Red. 7 of the lower 25 population states are Blue states, with 5 of the 15 significantly smaller states also being Blue.
16 out of the 35 seats were from the top 25 population states, versus 19 from the bottom. More narrowly, 7 were from the top quarter and 10 were from the lowest quarter. So we can say there will be a slight advantage in totals from the lowest population states in the results of the election.
10 out of the 15 seats (66%) the Democrats won were from the top 25 most populated states. Only 6 out the 20 seats (30%) republicans won were there. More narrowly, 6 democrat seats came from the top quarter, while only 2 republican seats came from there. Similarly, 3 out of 15 seats (20%) for Democrats came from the lowest quarter, while 7 out of 20 seats (35%) for Republicans did the same.
5 Democrat seats were won from purple states in the top half, while only 1 Republican seat from purple states was. 2 Democrat seats from purple states in the bottom half were one, compared to again only 1 from Republicans. Out of the 9 purple state seats available, only 2 were won by Republicans.
Only 1 state voted against its pattern, Maine, which while being mostly a blue state voted for a Republican Senator.
8 out 15 Blue states (53%) are in the top 25 state by population. 11 out of the 15 Purple states (73%) are in the top 25 states, and 6 out of 20 Red states (30%) are.
For the top quarter, 5 states are blue (39%), 1 is red (8%), and 7 are purple (54%). For the lowest quarter, that is 5 blue states (39%), 7 Red (54%), and 1 Purple (8%)
By magnitude, the states with a magnitude factor of 3 or higher for high populations are 2 Blue, 1 Red and 1 Purple, with the four magnitudes being California (Blue, 5), Texas (Red, 3.5), Florida (Purple, 3.3) and New York (Blue, 3).
By magnitude, the states with a magnitude factor of 3 or higher for low populations are 5 Blue, 8 Red and 2 Purple, with the top five magnitudes being Wyoming (Red, 11.3), Vermont (Blue, 10.6), Alaska (Red, 9), North Dakota (Red, 8.6), and South Dakota (Red, 7.4).
In terms of victory margins, the closest five margins were in 4 Purple states and 1 Blue state, with all being in the top 25 population states and most being in the top quarter. The widest margins were in 1 Blue state and 4 Red states, with most being in the lower 25 states and the lowest quarter, excepting the Blue state.
Effect On Outcomes
If you look at the trend, you can see that Red states trend towards having smaller populations and having higher margins of victory, lending support the theory that Republicans consolidate in smaller state victories for the Senate. This is reflected as well in the outcomes of the 2020 election, with most of the Republican victories coming from small population, solidly red states, while most of the Democrat victories came from large population Blue and Purple states.
Theoretically, the least populated states could band together and control the Senate with only 12% of the population. Thankfully this is not the case right now, with several smaller population states being blue or purple, but it is not insignificant the advantage Republicans have in consolidating in small population centers.
Based on the 2020 elections, 14 out of the 20 seats the Republicans won were from the 25 smallest population states (population % = 9.22) with a vote total of 8,394,466. Meanwhile, 10 out of 15 seats the Democrats won came from the top populated 25 states (population % = 23.02), for a vote total of 22,952,185. Conversely, this is not remotely equal. The 6 Republican seats up top make up 18.51% of the population with 14,498,011 votes, and the bottom 5 Democrat seats make up 2.93% population with 2,866,686 votes.
That means for every Republican seat in the lower 25 states, 599,605 votes were needed, whereas in the same lower 25 states for Democrats, 573,337 votes were. For the upper 25 states, Democrats needed 2,295,219 votes per Senator, and Republicans needed 2,416,335. Which doesn’t look so good for Republicans!
So how then does this come to a disadvantage for Democrats? Because only 6/20 (30%) Republican seats came from the upper 25, while 10/15 Democrat seats (67%) do. That means that for Democrats, 2/3rds of their seats come with around 2 million voters needed, while Republicans only need that for 1/3rd of their seats. The rest come in at a much easier 6K voters.
What about outside of the 2020 election? Well, based on the Red/Blue distribution, Democrats have to convince 36.05% of the nation to support them, to get their solid 30 seats. Republicans have to convince only 26.25% of the nation to secure their 40 solid seats. In essence, Republicans can control the Senate with their 26% and another 6% of Purple state population, meaning that 32% of the nation would control over 50% of the Senate. It would take Democrats convincing another 22.19% at least of the Purple states to secure more than 50 Senators, meaning they need at minimum 48.25% of the nation to control the Senate.
Essentially, based only on power consolidation in certain smaller states, Republicans have a 3 to 2 advantage over Democrats for Senate control. and while 33% is not as bad an advantage as the theoretically possible 66%, it’s still half that, meaning the Democrats have to work twice as hard to overcome a systemic disadvantage.
Why It Matters
This series looks at how Minority Rule currently runs our nation. The Senate is one of the most egregious examples, with its current makeup having 43% of the nation control 50% of the Senate, meaning the Democrats have overcome an 11% systemic disadvantage just to tie 50/50.
It also matters because of whom is not being represented. 43% to 57% might not seem like much to some, but every solid color state with both Senators from the same party means millions of voters in that state not being represented. This may be an incentive for Republicans to fix the system, beyond the fact that bad representation is bad. They suffer the most here, with 20,775,711 voters getting no representation (based on partisan lines) versus Democrats only having that for 15,486,851 of their voters.
Either way, Minority Rule always eventually falls. The only question is will it be a controlled fall and readjustment, a slow decay, or a collapse?
What do you think? Do you see any fixes for this that would help all sides feel heard?