One person, one vote.
That’s the foundation of our democracy. Right?
But that’s not how it works in the U.S. Senate. In what some might call, “the world’s greatest deliberative body,” the 29 million people who live in Texas have the same number of votes as the 600,000 people who live in Vermont.
Since the beginning, the idea that the interests of small states need special protection has been at the heart of the Senate. For the Constitutional Convention, future president James Madison wrote the “Virginia Plan,” named after his home state.
This plan would have created two houses of Congress, and in both of them, voting power would be based on state population. However, this drew criticism from smaller states like New Jersey and Connecticut, and eventually the two-body congressional system we know today was adopted.
But I’m not sure that overweighting the voting power of small states is worth keeping the Senate around. While I am a defender of federalism, I don’t think federalism needs to mean that some people’s votes count more than others. Federalism will still be protected by the substantial autonomy that state governments have — we don’t need to make the national government less democratic as well.
Certainly, eliminating the Senate could run the risk that big states like California and Texas would dominate smaller states like Wyoming and Vermont. But the idea that California and Texas would stop squabbling with each other long enough to mount a takeover seems unlikely.
Even if we assume that small and big states represent consistent blocs, the problems with the Senate outweigh the potential benefit. In theory, overweighting smaller states protects the rights of minorities in an otherwise majoritarian system.
But what about other minorities? The average state is somewhat whiter than the country as a whole. This means that in a system that gives equal representation to each state, not each person, voters of color are going to be underrepresented.
Another minority that might benefit from the Senate is people who live in rural areas. And while smaller states do tend to be more rural than bigger ones, there are still plenty of rural people in big states. So while the Senate overall favors rural areas, many rural Americans are underrepresented. For instance, 570,000 people live in Wyoming. But, 1.8 million people live in rural areas in California.
In addition to underrepresenting voters of color, the Senate also underrepresents Democrats. As our two major parties have polarized between urban and rural voters, so has the Senate. It has now become possible for one party to control a majority of the Senate with a minority of the votes. Indeed, Republicans have done this. I will admit that minority rule stings more when your favored party is the one being denied its majority.
This isn’t just true in America, either. A 2011 study by political scientist Adrian Vatter found that two-chambered legislatures are less likely to pass laws expanding the welfare state or government intervention.
But Democrats are not the only ones who can be stymied by the Senate. Just as Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema have become the bane of Biden’s agenda, just three dissident Senators managed to sink the Obamacare repeal in 2017.
As the writer Ezra Klein once put it, democracy is a “feedback loop.” Voters choose a candidate or faction, and then they enact their policies, and voters can then decide whether the impact was positive or negative and vote once again.
I think that when the majority of voters select a party to govern, they should be able to enact their agenda – within constitutional limits. If Republicans win a majority of the votes, they should be able to pass their policies. Same with Democrats. At present, the Senate presents an obstacle to this.
I believe states should have significant autonomy to enact their own laws and systems as their residents wish. But I don’t believe it’s worth it to overweight the voters of small states if it leads to underweighting other minorities.
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