If you’re from California, you should hate the Senate

March 11, 2013

As part of the grand compromise that created the United States of America, the Senate overrepresents small states and underrepresents big states. That's common knowledge. What's less well-known is that the malapportionment of the Senate is much worse today than it was at the time of the nation's founding.

"Behind the growth of the [small-state] advantage is an increase in population gap between large and small states," writes Adam Liptak in the New York Times, "with large states adding many more people than small ones in the last half-century."

When the Senate was created, "the population was about four million, and the maximum disparity in voting power between states was perhaps 11 to 1." Today, it's closer to 66:1. Pity the Californians:

Liptak's article makes the case that this malapportionment helps Republicans, who "disproportionately live in small states." That certainly should be correct. But is it? Consider this roll-call from Liptak:

Democrats, especially African-Americans and Latinos, are more likely to live in large states like California, New York, Florida and Illinois. Among the nation’s five smallest states, only Vermont tilts liberal, while Alaska, Wyoming and the Dakotas have each voted Republican in every presidential election since 1968.

When it comes to presidential elections, Liptak is right: The big states trend Democratic and the small states trend Republican. But this isn't an article about presidential elections. It's about the Senate. And there, the story is more complicated.

Of the five largest states — California, New York, Florida, Illinois and, of course, Republican-leaning Texas, which Liptak left out — Democrats hold six of 10 Senate seats. Of the five smallest states, Democrats hold five of the 10 Senate seats. And in the Senate as a whole, Democrats have 55 of 100 seats. So while the malapportionment of the Senate should be hurting Democrats, they're actually doing okay. In fact, they're doing better in the Senate than they're doing in the House, where the geographical bias is less pronounced.

To get a bit counterintuitive here, you could argue that the Democratic Party's broader geographical dispersion and resulting disadvantage in the Senate has forced them to adopt a big-tent strategy that's paid large electoral dividends, while the GOP's concentration in small, conservative states has helped pull the party to the right and rendered it less competitive nationally. But it's hard to make the case, right now, that the Senate shows a clear Republican tilt, though all evidence suggests that it should show a clear Republican tilt.

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Sarah Kliff | March 11, 2013