A basic principle of democracy is that every person’s vote should have equal weight. So we might expect some public discourse about the fact that the U.S. Senate is fundamentally undemocratic. But it’s a complete non-issue among politicians and journalists alike.
One of the key roles of news media should be to raise important questions that powerful people in government don’t want to ask — or answer. However, while thousands of reporters and pundits stay busy with all kinds of stories about politics, they keep detouring around a central tilt of the national legislature’s upper chamber.
Like the “purloined letter” openly displayed in a famous tale by Edgar Allan Poe, the Senate’s huge structural flaw is right in front of us all the time — but we don’t see it as anything more than an eternal legacy of the nation’s political heritage.
The past has ways of enduring. Today, in the 100-member Senate, cattle may be more equitably represented than people.
For instance, Montana — with a total of 902,195 residents, according to the 2000 census — has a pair of U.S. senators. So does California, with a population of 33,871,648.
In other words, less than 1 million people in Montana have as much representation in the United States Senate as more than 33 million people in California.
Voters who live just a few miles apart can wield vastly different amounts of leverage in Senate races. If a citizen moved across the border from Pennsylvania (pop. 12,281,054) to Delaware (pop. 783,600), the impact of his or her ballot would increase by a factor of about 15.
A combined total of nearly 40 million people live in the states that rank second and third in population, Texas and New York. They get four senators. Meanwhile, a total of scarcely more than 1 million people live in Vermont and Wyoming. They, too, get four senators.
Of course, there are historic explanations. Back in 1787, small states wanted safeguards against being out-muscled in Congress by big states. But what began as a realpolitik deal to get the Constitution of the United States ratified is now, more than 200 years later, largely an anachronism that cuts against high-flung rhetoric about American democracy.
In the mid-1960s, the U.S. Supreme Court finally put a stop to similar skewed distribution of seats in more than a dozen state legislatures, where it often seemed that apportionment was based on acreage or cows rather than human beings. Those imbalances had the effect of devaluing ballots cast by people who lived in urban areas.
The nation’s highest court ruled that such undemocratic setups were unconstitutional, violating the principle of one person, one vote. But the ongoing comparable arrangement for the U.S. Senate is — by definition — constitutional. It’s a built-in barrier to democracy, enshrined in Article I, Section 3.
Sure, the two-senators-per-state formula was satisfactory to the framers of the Constitution. By the way, they were the same fellows who went along with slavery and confined voting rights to certain white males. They were also the same guys who stipulated that U.S. senators had to be chosen by state legislatures instead of by direct election — an arrangement that persisted until adoption of the 17th Amendment in 1913.
The 2000 census found that 10 states — California, Texas, New York, Florida, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, New Jersey and Georgia — had an aggregate population of 152 million people. They get the same representation in the U.S. Senate as the total of 8.3 million people who live in the 10 least-populated states (Wyoming, Vermont, Alaska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Delaware, Montana, Rhode Island, Hawaii and New Hampshire).
Such disparities are increasing. All of the eight states that gained more than 1 million between 1990 and 2000 are among the 25 most populous states. As the population gaps between states continue to widen, so do the inequalities of Senate representation.
But this is not important to news media — for reasons that are both understandable and disturbing. A predominant view is that the matter was settled back in the late 18th century.
When I called a New York Times reporter on the Senate beat, David E. Rosenbaum, he commented that disproportionate allocation of Senate seats is not a present-day media concern “for the same reason that we don’t write about what happened to the Indians.” He added: “The Founding Fathers set it up this way on purpose. It’s not news.” And Rosenbaum could not resist a bit of sophisticated sarcasm: “This is a really really big issue about 225 years ago.”
True, the flagrantly undemocratic structure of the Senate is not an issue today. But maybe it should be.