Why you should care
Because one person, one vote isn’t exactly the case.
Picture Joe New Yorker. He lives in Manhattan, loves the Yankees and, in this thought experiment, is a die-hard liberal. Now, travel down the New Jersey Turnpike and meet Delaware Dave, a small-business owner and staunch conservative. Both have one vote come election time. The big difference? Even though they’re separated by just a few hours’ drive, Dave’s vote is about 20 times more influential in deciding the next Supreme Court justice of the United States.
That’s because Delaware, a state with just under 1 million residents, has the same number of representatives in the U.S. Senate as New York, home to almost 20 million people. Yes, small states have had outsize influence in the nation’s upper chamber ever since the Constitution was ratified, and the U.S. House is proportional, which somewhat levels the field. However, senators have a unique role in ratifying treaties and approving presidential appointments, a process that’s entered the spotlight as Republican lawmakers have refused to consider Merrick Garland to fill the Supreme Court spot left vacant by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in February.
The population of eight states could fit into the five boroughs of New York City, yet the Big Apple is represented by only two senators in Washington, D.C.
Those smaller states, from Vermont and West Virginia to Montana and Alaska, have 16 senators on their side. If this seems undemocratic, that’s because it is — by design. The roots go back to the deliberations over the U.S. Constitution. The large states favored one proportional legislative body, while the smaller states wanted a single force with equal representation. The result was a Frankensteinian combo, our bicameral system, with a proportional House, an equal Senate. Many of the Founding Fathers, including Alexander Hamilton, weren’t happy with the so-called Great Compromise. “Every idea of proportion and every rule of fair representation conspire to condemn” the principle, Hamilton wrote to his New York constituents.
— Nicholas Fouriezos (@nick4iezos) September 3, 2016
The model does protect small-towns from being bullied by big cities, but as more tiny states joined the union, the disparity in population and voting power grew. Not all New Yorkers see this as a problem. Author Jess Row, who lives in the West Village, shrugs it off as “the basic idea of a bicameral legislature,” adding that “in many cases it’s not so much the number of senators as the senator’s relative influence. New York usually has at least one very influential senator.”
There are other options for upper chambers, notes University of California, Davis, political scientist Jeannette Money, such as the British Parliament’s House of Lords, based on hereditary titles, or the German Bundesrat, which gives added representation to more populous regions. Annie Lowrey, a writer for New York magazine, has argued for representation by statistics rather than state lines. Senators could be elected proportional to the number of citizens in each income bracket, or by demographic groups such as gender or race, any of which would seemingly be more democratic than the modern system that many believe serves only the interests of the elite. “However you slice it,” Lowrey, who couldn’t be reached for comment, wrote, “a new voting model would shake up the Senate agenda.”