In an interview with the political satirist Bill Maher last week, the Vermont Senator and candidate for President, Bernie Sanders, disagreed with the host on whether California should have more representation in the Senate than other states like Vermont.
MAHER: So now you’re in California, obviously because the primary is coming up. This is the biggest state. I always say we should get a lot more representation in the Senate than we do.
SANDERS: You think that you should have more senators than Vermont?
[Bernie Sanders shakes his head in disapproval]
MAHER: That’s where I was going with that, but we’ll leave that for another day.
I disagree with the Senator. And on this issue, I probably disagree with all presidential candidates, the founding fathers, as well as the majority of the American people. Nevertheless, I will make the case to the readers of why I believe that the Senate is undemocratic.
The most important principle of democracy is equality. All other democratic principles such as fundamental freedoms, voting rights and legal rights are derived from the simple idea that all people are equal regardless of their gender, race, class, ethnicity or belief. A democratic government is one that gives its citizens an equal say of who should govern them, and legislation enacted by the government should give equal consideration to the interests of those citizens it governs.
The most important principle of democracy is equality
However, every state sends two senators regardless of the population of that state. A senator from Wyoming represents 293,000 citizens, while a senator from California represents over 19 million constituents. The voting power of a Wyoming voter is 66 times that of a Californian. Senators from smaller states are essentially superdelegates with a superior voting power.
Now you may think that this is trivial, but it’s not. This has lead in the past to disproportionate legislation favoring smaller states over bigger ones. A great example is the federal stimulus. New York is 31 times more populated than Vermont, but only received 4 times the federal stimulus than what Vermont received. Ironically, Bernie Sanders, who is sometimes criticized by some of his detractors as someone who can’t get things done in Congress, was able to deliver in a big way for his state. Adam Liptak from the New York Times explains:
As the money started arriving, Senator Bernard Sanders, the Vermont independent, took credit for having delivered a “hefty share of the national funding.” Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat, vowed to fight for her state’s “fair share.”
Liptak continues (emphasis mine):
The difference in the fortunes of Rutland [in Vermont] and Washington Counties [in New York] reflects the growing disparity in their citizens’ voting power, and it is not an anomaly.
I don’t blame Sanders. That’s exactly what Vermonters asked him to do; to fight for their interests. But that doesn’t change the fact that this process is undemocratic, and was unfair to the people of New York who deserved a fair share.
The Forgotten States and Territories
While the disproportionate allocation of senators is undemocratic, there’s a bigger issue that is often overlooked. Residents of Washington D.C., which has a population even larger than that of Wyoming or Vermont, don’t have voting representation in Congress. In the House of Representatives, the District is represented by a single representative, Eleanor Norton, who is not allowed to vote. This is inherently undemocratic and unacceptable. I’m pleased that both Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton support statehood for District of Columbia. The Republican nominee Donald Trump appears to be open to the idea.
The United States also have five territories where millions of Americans live: Puerto Rico, Guam, Virgin Islands, Northern Mariana Islands and American Samoa. Except for the curious case of American Samoa, residents get US citizenship at birth. These citizens serve in the American army, pay taxes and they are… American! Yet, like their brothers and sisters in Washington D.C., they don’t have voting representation in Congress, and do not have a say of who they wish to see become President.
Time for a Better Senate
I agree with Bill Maher. It’s time for states like California to send more senators to better address the disproportionate representation in the Senate.
I propose the following:
- Allocate senators proportionally
- Smaller states should continue to send two senators to Capitol Hill
- Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico should send two senators each. Other territories should send one senator each.
This model would only affect the 12 most-populated states and non-represented states. The new Senate would have 143 senators. As the graph below shows, this would drastically reduce (but not eliminate) the disproportionate voting power by smaller states.