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Monday, May 28, 2012

Basics: How Overrepresented Are Rural and Low-Population States?

We all kinda sorta know it: rural and small states are overrepresented in the Senate and, to a lesser extent, the Electoral College.This has deep roots in American history, of course: when the United States Constitution was drafted, small states demanded the Senate, with two votes for every state, to guarantee they would not be overwhelmed by the larger states politically. But today, when we have much greater population differences among states than in 1787, this takes on much more anti-democratic significance than it did then. Because each state has two Senators, political changes favoring the middle class are much harder to achieve than if everyone in the country were equally represented, in a mathematical sense, in Congress. Moreover, with the existence of the filibuster (recently challenged in court by Common Cause), the effect of this overrepresentation is substantially magnified. But how big is the effect after the 2010 Census?

Under the Senate's filibuster rules, 41 Senators can block debate on Senate bills and nomination confirmations. So the first question is what percentage of the 50 states' population do the 21 smallest states have. The 2010 Census showed the states to have 308.1 million (all quoted figures are subject to slight rounding error) population, with the smallest 21, from Wyoming's 564,000 to Iowa's 3 million, having a total of 34.8 million, or just 11.3% of the 50-state population. In theory, Senators representing those states could mount a successful filibuster. Of course, this is unrealistic, since some small states are heavily Democratic, such as Vermont, Rhode Island, Hawaii, and Delaware. Even Montana currently has two Democratic Senators.

Another way to look at the filibuster is to ask what percentage of the 50-state population is represented by the 41 Republican Senators from the least populous states. The answer takes the actual population of states with any Republican Senators, except Texas (Cornyn and Hutchison), Florida (Rubio), Illinois (Kirk), Pennsylvania (Toomey), and Ohio (Portman).  The population of the states represented by the other 41 Republican Senators is 104.7 million, or 34.0% of the population of the 50 states. Thus, states with just a third of the country's population can block legislation or Presidential nominations. With the recent skyrocketing use of the filibuster in the Senate, this is profoundly undemocratic.

Turning to the Electoral College, we can again see the effect of having a minimum of two Senators regardless of population, which means that each state (and the District of Columbia) has a minimum of three electors in the Electoral College. For example, the Real Clear Politics Electoral College map lists just 11 states and the District of Columbia as likely Obama, whereas 17 states are likely Romney. Even though the likely Obama states have more electoral votes than the likely Romney states (161 to 131), 6 of the Democratic states have double-digit  electoral votes whereas only two of the Republican states do, underlining how Romney benefits from the overrepresentation of rural states.

Finally, remembering the 2000 election, where President Bush was awarded more electoral votes despite losing the popular vote nationally, we can ask what the minimum percentage of population for the 50 states plus DC is needed to win the Electoral College. To answer this question, I tallied from the bottom to see how many states were required to top 270 electoral votes. According to Wikipedia (as I tell my students, only a potentially reliable source for non-controversial information, like this), you have to have New Jersey to top 270, but it actually takes you to 282. So I subtracted three Democratic states (DE, VT, and DC) with 3 electoral votes as well as Montana's 3 electoral votes (since it's the most competitive of the remaining states with 3 EVs) to get down to 270. The 37 remaining states have only 45% of the nation's population eligible to elect the President. Yet theoretically they could do just that.

This post has merely scratched the surface of the deep historical and constitutional questions that have led to Wyoming's 564,000 people having as many Senators as California's 37.7 million. The rural bias of the Senate and Electoral College make major political changes difficult to achieve, yet it is even more difficult to imagine that they could possibly be fundamentally altered, especially the Senate. Still, it is worth reflecting on these imbalances in order to understand the shortcomings that exist in American democracy.


  1. Then it sounds like the Senate is working just fine. It was originally intended to be an old boys club, what with senators elected by state legislators instead of directly through the people and the chummy nature of Senate rules, so that America would have its very own House of Lords. The fact that, to this day, it continues to block progressive reform and protect the interests of the wealthy more than the House does shows the genius of the Founders.

  2. Do the numbers on the House. They are pretty bad also.


    1. According to the first Wikipedia source, the 2010 population per House seat ranged only from 526,000 for Rhode Island to 999,000 for Montana, so the disparity is not nearly as bad.

  3. When the Grand Bargain was struck at the Constitutional Convention, the biggest state (VA) was nine times larger than the smallest (RI). Something tells me that Madison would not have gone for a deal based on today's 66-1 gap (CA vs WY).

  4. Some of the ills of congress are built into our constitution. The US Senate, for example, which likes to characterize itself as "the world's greatest deliberative body" is arguably the "free world's" least democratic body. That is, first of all, a consequence of the constitutional arrangement that each state, regardless of size or economic output, have an equal number of senators. This is compounded by the increasingly inexplicable commitment of the senate to the requirement of a supermajority of senators to pass any legislation at all. My solution to that: get rid of paper filibusters imposed by the cloture rule. Let's go back to "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" style of filibuster. Filibusters would become more rare because voters could see what was happening and better understand what it was about.

    Some republicans want to fix the senate by repealing the seventeenth amendment providing direct popular election of senators. What, we have too much democracy?

    A common complaint about the House of Representatives is "My representative doesn't listen to people like me."

    Some advocate term limits to fix this. I say, we already have term limits. Elections. What we don't have is enough representatives.

    We are going through redistricting right now. This is the process after every decenniel census (except for the 1920 census - there was not a reapportionment after that census). First congress reapportions seats in the House of Representatives to the states according to population. District boundaries are then redrawn by state legislatures and in some cases by courts.

    Contrary to popular opinion, the number of seats in the House of Representatives is not in the constitution. But the number has not changed since it was set at 435 in 1911. At that time, each member of the House represented about 216,000 citizens. Since then, our population has more than tripled, but the number remains the same. Now each member represents about 708,000 constituents.

    My suggestion: enlarge the House so that each member represents about 216,000 citizens. With modern communications systems, that would allow the members closer communication with constituents. It would also lower the financial and organizational barriers to running for office. It might reduce the influence of money in politics and even create opportunities for more political parties to become competitive.

    How many representatives would we have? About 1,426. Admittedly, that might make the body even more unwieldy, but it might force more cooperation. It would certainly induce representatives to be more responsive to constituents.

    How could we accommodate so many representatives? Replace the desks on the floor of the House with benches. Reduce representatives' personal staffs. Currently, members are allowed to hire as many as eighteen personal staffers. Reduce that to five per member. Representatives might have to study bills themselves, possibly answer phones and write some of their own correspondence. But they wouldn't have to raise so much money.

  5. Good job! It is sad, but some big things that are very do-able are ending the filibuster and the electoral college (a group of states with majority electoral votes would just have to pass legislation saying they will choose whoever wins the popular vote, if such a majority agrees to the same; the efforts underway and making progress).

    But what about undemocratic districting for the House? It would be nice to report on this and who it favors and how much. I've read the Republicans and the rural. How hard would it be to make this more democratic?

    1. The National Popular Vote bill would guarantee the Presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC).

      Every vote, everywhere, would be politically relevant and equal in presidential elections. No more distorting and divisive red and blue state maps. There would no longer be a handful of 'battleground' states where voters and policies are more important than those of the voters in more than 3/4ths of the states that now are just 'spectators' and ignored after the primaries.

      When the bill is enacted by states possessing a majority of the electoral votes– enough electoral votes to elect a President (270 of 538), all the electoral votes from the enacting states would be awarded to the presidential candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states and DC.

      The bill uses the power given to each state by the Founding Fathers in the Constitution to change how they award their electoral votes for President. Historically, virtually all of the major changes in the method of electing the President, including ending the requirement that only men who owned substantial property could vote and 48 current state-by-state winner-take-all laws, have come about by state legislative action.

      In Gallup polls since 1944, only about 20% of the public has supported the current system of awarding all of a state's electoral votes to the presidential candidate who receives the most votes in each separate state (with about 70% opposed and about 10% undecided). Support for a national popular vote is strong among Republicans, Democrats, and Independent voters, as well as every demographic group in virtually every state surveyed in recent polls in closely divided Battleground states: CO – 68%, FL – 78%, IA 75%, MI – 73%, MO – 70%, NH – 69%, NV – 72%, NM– 76%, NC – 74%, OH – 70%, PA – 78%, VA – 74%, and WI – 71%; in Small states (3 to 5 electoral votes): AK – 70%, DC – 76%, DE – 75%, ID – 77%, ME – 77%, MT – 72%, NE 74%, NH – 69%, NV – 72%, NM – 76%, OK – 81%, RI – 74%, SD – 71%, UT – 70%, VT – 75%, WV – 81%, and WY – 69%; in Southern and Border states: AR – 80%,, KY- 80%, MS – 77%, MO – 70%, NC – 74%, OK – 81%, SC – 71%, TN – 83%, VA – 74%, and WV – 81%; and in other states polled: AZ – 67%, CA – 70%, CT – 74%, MA – 73%, MN – 75%, NY – 79%, OR – 76%, and WA – 77%. Americans believe that the candidate who receives the most votes should win.

      The bill has passed 31 state legislative chambers in 21 small, medium, and large states. The bill has been enacted by 9 jurisdictions possessing 132 electoral votes - 49% of the 270 necessary to go into effect.

      Follow National Popular Vote on Facebook via NationalPopularVoteInc

    2. “A democracy is nothing more than mob rule, where fifty-one percent of the people may take away the rights of the other forty-nine.” Thomas Jefferson
      The Senate is structurally overrepresented by rural States for this reason.

    3. I don't think that protecting an individual's rights means that states should get extra votes. We have a Bill of Rights to protect individuals from discrimination by a majority.

  6. In the 2012 election, pundits and campaign operatives agree, that, at most, only 12 states and their voters will matter. They will decide the election. None of the 10 most rural states will matter, as usual. About 76% of the country will be ignored --including 19 of the 22 lowest population and medium-small states, and 17 medium and big states like CA, GA, NY, and TX. This will be more obscene than the 2008 campaign, when candidates concentrated over 2/3rds of their campaign events and ad money in just 6 states, and 98% in just 15 states (CO, FL, IN, IA, MI, MN, MO, NV, NH, NM, NC, OH, PA, VA, and WI). Over half (57%) of the events were in just 4 states (OH, FL, PA, and VA). In 2004, candidates concentrated over 2/3rds of their money and campaign visits in 5 states; over 80% in 9 states; and over 99% of their money in 16 states.

    More than 2/3rds of the states and people have been merely spectators to presidential elections. They have no influence. That's more than 85 million voters, 200 million Americans, ignored. When and where voters are ignored, then so are the issues they care about most.

    Policies important to the citizens of ‘flyover’ states are not as highly prioritized as policies important to ‘battleground’ states when it comes to governing.

    The number and population of battleground states is shrinking as the U.S. population grows.
    As of March 10th, some pundits think there will be only Six States That Will Likely Decide The 2012 Election

    With the current state-by-state winner-take-all system of awarding electoral votes, it could only take winning a bare plurality of popular votes in the 11 most populous states, containing 56% of the population of the United States, for a candidate to win the Presidency with a mere 26% of the nation's votes!