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The worst of our system’s undemocratic features: two senators from each state

It’s roughly impossible to reconcile this with the principle of one person, one vote.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell speaking during a 2017 news conference.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell speaking during a 2017 news conference.
REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein

There are many undemocratic features of the U.S. system of politics and government, against which I rail often. Many of them are embedded in the Constitution, which makes them very hard to improve.

For example, the Electoral College system allows the popular vote loser to the win the presidency, as has happened in two of the past six presidential elections. The same E-college system makes the votes of only those living in swing states matter, making the large majority of voters borderline irrelevant to the outcome.

The Senate filibuster (which is not in the Constitution) allows a minority to block a bill favored by a majority. There’s gerrymandering. And many states use their control over election practices to make it easier for one party’s voters, or one race, to vote.

But, to me, as I’ve mentioned in the past, the biggest, grand-daddiest of all is the one that gives the two senators from Wyoming, with its 572,381 residents, equal voting power in the Senate with the two senators from California, with its 39.75 million.

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It’s roughly impossible to reconcile this with the principle of one person, one vote.

But, in addition to its violation of that important principle, the unamendable provision has, in the current context, a huge, unfair, undemocratic partisan impact. Wyoming is a red state and California is a blue state. Their equal representation in the Senate disregards the fact that California has 70 times more residents!

You can say that this is somewhat offset by the fact that California has 53 times more members in the U.S. House. But that’s only saying that the House is a much more democratic (small d) institution. And, since it takes both houses to pass a law, the way the Senate is constituted still gives the small states an insanely excessive power to block laws.

I point this out to introduce another number, which Vox writer Ian Millhiser emphasized in a January piece, which went beyond the extreme California-Wyoming analysis. Millhiser made the perfectly reasonable assumption that, since each state has two senators, each senator in a sense represents half the state’s population. In this age, with a 50-50 Senate, if you add up the number of people represented by a Republican versus a Democratic senator, it turns out that the 50 Democratic senators collectively represent 41,549,808 more people than do the 50 Republican senators and yet the much bigger group has no more collective Senate power than the much smaller group.

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Again: 41,549,808 more, as of the day Millhiser analyzed the numbers, when he did his piece in January, which was headlined:

 “America’s anti-democratic Senate, in one number: 41,549,808.”

That’s a lot of people to, you might say, “not count” in the division of power in the Senate, a body that supposedly “represents” the whole country, and without the concurrence of which, no laws can be made.

(I’ve mentioned this before, but this provision, equal votes for all states in the Senate irrespective of differences in population, is the only provision in the Constitution that the Constitution itself decrees cannot — can never — be changed, even by constitutional amendment.)

See the very last clause of Article V.

Millhiser’s full Vox piece, which was published in January, is here.