Congress is tilted to benefit small states

California is projected to have 48 million residents by 2040, yet it will have the same number of senators as Wyoming, which is only projected to have six-hundred thousand residents by 2040.

The idea that the senate unfairly benefits small states is not new. You can trace it back to Federalist Paper #22, where Hamilton writes,

Every idea of proportion and every rule of fair representation conspire to condemn a principle, which gives to Rhode Island an equal weight in the scale of power with Massachusetts, or Connecticut, or New York; and to Deleware an equal voice in the national deliberations with Pennsylvania, or Virginia, or North Carolina. Its operation contradicts the fundamental maxim of republican government, which requires that the sense of the majority should prevail.

Ultimately, the two senators per state policy prevailed because the smaller states refused to concede this idea, and it was viewed to be better to accept this over returning to the articles of confederation. To this day though, the idea is still, I believe, rightly challenged.

Dylan Matthews at Vox has pointed out the vast discrepancy in the share of winning votes senate Democrats receive over Republicans, and yet Republicans maintain a majority in the Senate. Adam Liptack at the New York Times wrote about the difference in voting power between senators from New York & Vermont, and ultimately what that meant for who received stimulus money from the federal government. Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight points out the senators who receive the most money from corporate PACs come from states with below median populations.

However, I think there is another large problem at play which hasn’t been talked about as much.

Partisan gerrymandering, the process of unfairly redistricting a state so it reliably puts a certain party in the power, is becoming a household name in America. But before a state can draw district lines, it has be apportioned congressional districts.

The constitution mandates every state receives at least 1 member in the house of representatives. After that, the remaining members are assigned based on a formula which looks at the total number of congressional seats, and the population of each state in the US census. This process occurs every decade along with the US census, and the formula used for apportioning the house has changed a few times over the course of our countries history. Originally, we used the Jefferson method, but since 1941 we have used the “Hill” (Huntington–Hill) method.

What is alarming about this method of apportionment is how it’s remained fairly consistent in it’s distribution of congressional power between above & below average populations, but the portion of the senate representing above average populations has plummeted over time.

This graph shows that from 1790 to 2040 (based on population projections) large states have been losing voting power in the senate. In an ideal, equitable world, this loss of influence could be offset in the house, or by giving large states more senators, but neither of those things have happened.

I do think it’s worth cautioning that the largest divergence of power that occurred came around 1900 and trends have remained consistent since. Yet, like gerrymandering, this is another policy that is actively suppressing the will of the majority, and it should not go unanswered.

In my view, the only way to resolve this problem is retiring the two senator per state cap, or changing the formula of house apportionment. Given that house apportionment has changed multiple times already, I decided to investigate that option further.

My first idea was to re-appropriate congress by simply raising the total number of representatives. The number of of constituents per representative has gone from 34,000 in the late 1700’s to well in the six-figures today. So adding more representatives might be a worth-while policy to explore, but it ultimately does not solve the small/large state distribution problem. If you run a simulation of the “Hill” method for varying levels of congressional members, you get the following chart.

Essentially, the proportion of representatives from small & large states remains consistent, regardless of how large congress is. And for the record, this is exactly how the formula is designed to work. (…face-palm)

The next path I wanted to explore was what would happen if you kept the apportionment methodology the same but didn’t give every state 1 congressional representative by default (as mandated by the constitution). At first glance the results seem better, because seats that used to be occupied by North Dakota or Vermont might go to higher population states such as Florida or New York. Yet, I believe there are two major flaws with this idea.

First, we’ve only closed about half of the gap between the large states in the senate and the house. So amending the constitution to remove the one representative per state requirement would not be enough to address this issue. The second problem is more of a moral question about whether we think it’s okay for a handful of states to lose all of their representation in congress. I’m guessing most of us, myself included, would not find that acceptable.

The final method I tried was going back to the original form of apportionment, the Jefferson method. According to a report conducted by the Congressional Research Service in 2010, the Jefferson method is designed to favor large states, whereas the current “Hill” method slightly benefits small states. Note my emphasis.

If it is posited that the combination of factors favoring the influence of small states encompassed in the great compromise (equal representation in the Senate, and a one seat minimum in the House) unduly advantages the small states, then compensatory influence could be provided to the large states in an apportionment formula. This approach would suggest the adoption of the Jefferson method because it significantly favors large states.
If it is posited that the influence of the small states is overshadowed by the larger ones (perhaps because the dynamics of the electoral college focus the attention of presidential candidates on larger states, or the increasing number of one-Representative states — from five to seven since 1910), there are several methods that could reduce the perceived imbalance. The Adams method favors small states in the extreme, Dean much less so, and Hill to a small degree.

So I created a new simulation to mock the Jefferson method, and unfortunately the results were disappointing. If one were to compare the portion of the house represented by large states under each of the methods discussed so far, the Jefferson method lies squarely in the middle if it were in use today.

Given that the Congressional Research Service found the Jefferson method of apportionment was designed to favor large states, we clearly need to develop a brand new method of apportionment that goes even farther.

Failing to address this issue will only prolong the inequality between the influence of voters in populated districts & low populated districts. Which, only gets worse as some of our country’s largest states continue to grow by the millions.

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All research papers, articles, original tables used
(Terrible messy) Google Sheet with all computations
Scripts used for apportionment simulation