The Vastly Varying Importance of American Voters (Updated and Revised September 2019)

Michael Ettlinger

It is no secret that the American system of democracy is not electing a national government reflecting the preferences expressed by the majority of voters. Three million more people voted for Hillary Clinton than Donald Trump in the last presidential election. Trump is president. The Republicans in the Senate were the choice of 57 million voters in their most recent elections while their Democratic counterparts were the preference of 68 million voters. The Republicans control the Senate. In 2013 and 2014 Republicans controlled the House of Representatives even though Democratic House candidates received more votes than Republican House candidates in the 2012 election. Democrats do currently control the House of Representatives with about the same share of members as the share of the vote they received — the lone bastion where the popular vote has been the decider.

The fundamental underlying problem these results reflect is not a partisan one. It is that the votes of huge numbers of Americans are being greatly discounted by geography and, particularly in the Senate, by race and ethnicity. The consequence is that the groups affected matter less to those in power and are underrepresented in public decision-making. And the situation has been getting worse. In the long run, both parties should be for changing the rules to strengthen the connection between the desires of the majority of voters and election outcomes. In the short run, underrepresented groups simply have to work harder, and be better organized and more committed, to gain their fair share of power.

The Swing State Bias in Presidential Elections

The most important factor in how much a voter counts in a presidential election is whether they live in a swing state. If you have any doubt about that, look at how much attention candidates pay to voters in states where it is virtually a foregone conclusion which candidate will win. In a system where Electoral College votes decide the outcome, and the margin of popular vote victory in a state makes no difference in the number of electoral votes, their inattention is understandable. Why should a candidate pay attention to Massachusetts voters when the state’s 11 electoral votes are surely going to the Democrat and it doesn’t matter whether the popular vote margin is 5% or 20%?

Most Americans today live in these non-swing states. Twenty-eight out of the fifty states have voted for the same party in the last seven presidential elections. This is the highest share of states with a seven-election streak for one party since the 19th century. One hundred and eighty million people (55 percent of the national population) live in those 28 states. While voters of both parties can be discounted in this system, 120 million of those 180 million live in states that have voted Democratic. It’s not surprising that the Republican candidate has now won the presidency in three of the last five elections while winning the popular vote in only one of them — more Democratic voters don’t meaningfully matter than Republican voters.

One defense offered of this system is that it protects voters in small states from being ignored. But the 6 smallest states and 8 of the smallest 10 are in the ignored, non-swing-state, group.

Obviously the one-party streaks wouldn’t exist without votes, and states can shift between consistently red, blue, and purple. And not every voter in these non-swing states is effectively disenfranchised — those who can make large campaign contributions receive attention no matter where they reside. But in recent presidential elections millions of voters have been of virtually no importance to presidential candidates because of the Electoral College system.

The Unprecedented Skew in Senate Representation

It’s not a surprise that the Senate disadvantages some voters over others. Every state gets two senators no matter its population. California with 39.6 million people gets two senators. Wyoming with a population of 578,000: two senators. Per-voter, that’s a lot more representation for Wyomingites than Californians.

The Senate, of course, was never intended to be proportionately representative of the people. It was part of the deal to cajole the smaller states into joining a united country. Larger states are, however, giving up much more power today than the large states of 1789 were when the deal was struck.

At the time the Constitution was ratified the most populous state, Virginia, had 12.7 times as many people as the least populous, Delaware, and 2.5 times the population of the average state. Today, California has over 68 times as many people as Wyoming and over 6 times the population of the average state. Although the difference in population between large states and small has grown greatly, they all still get the same representation in the Senate. The Virginians and Massachusettsans of 1789 made a deal that, on balance, worked for them. The Californians, Texans, Floridians, and New Yorkers of today are paying a much bigger price.

How much of a price in representation and political power are the residents of larger states paying? The average state has a population of 6.5 million, making the average American one of 6.5 million constituents for each of their two senators. Californians are, however, one of 39.6 million constituents for their two senators. That makes Californians 83% less important in the Senate than the average (1/39.6 is 83% less than 1/6.5). At the other extreme, people in Wyoming are each one of 578,000 constituents, making them matter 10 times more — have 10 times the representationthan the average.

The consequence of this is not just a geographic bias. Any population group that is disproportionately concentrated in large states is underrepresented in the Senate. For example, individual Latino voters are either underrepresented or overrepresented depending on whether they live in large or small states — but because almost two-thirds of them live in the five largest states Latinos overall end up underrepresented. Adding up the under- and over-representation of Latinos in all the states they reside, they matter 32% less in the Senate than the average American.

This skewing of representation can operate in reverse as well when groups are disproportionately in small states. The average rural American, for example, matters 37% more in the Senate than the average American. The number can be calculated for any group for which state-by-state populations are known. Gun owners, based on data on ownership by state, are represented 15% more than average, for example. The graph below shows the under- and over-representation for several groups. (In response to an earlier version of this article a reader asked How Adding Senators from Puerto Rico and DC Would Address Under-Representation. The answer is at the link.)

Democrats also disproportionately live in large states. There are 196 million people in states that Democratic senators represent and only 181 million in states Republicans represent (those add up to more than the US population of 327 million because some states have one senator from each party). The result is that 54 percent of voters in the elections that picked the current Senate voted for Democrats (or third party senators that caucus with them) while 46 percent chose the Republicans who are in control. Democrats are piling up votes as they win states closer to the California end of the range while Republicans are piling up senators winning states closer to the Wyoming end.

The nature of the Senate is not new. What has changed is the magnitude of its impact on large states, how that interacts with the two-party system and how it skews representation of subsets of the national population.

And the House of Representatives?

Because the seats in the House of Representatives are apportioned by population, and the courts, to a degree, look over the shoulders of the state legislatures that draw district lines, the situation is not as consistently skewed as in the Senate. Because of gerrymandering and the population distribution it is not guaranteed, however, that the more popular party controls the House of Represenatives. As recently as 2012 the party that got the fewer votes in House elections, the Republican Party, got the majority of the seats. I will not dive deeply into this because it has been discussed at length elsewhere. In any case, in the current House of Representatives the Democrats control 54% of the seats after accumulating 53% of the vote, while the Republicans have 46% of the seats after garnering 45% of the vote (the missing 2% of votes went to third parties).

Getting this fixed

Everyone should be for addressing this situation. Even if a sense of fairness isn’t enough, the rules that favor one party now could favor the other party later. There is also a real risk to the long-term political stability of our country. It is no coincidence that California is a center of “resistance,” not home to a steadfast loyal opposition. The state has 12% of the U.S. population but only 2% of the nation’s senators. Hillary Clinton got more votes in the state, 8.8 million, than the entire populations of 39 of the 50 states. It isn’t surprising that California led the way in flipping the House of Representatives to the Democrats in 2018 with the party gaining 7 seats in the state. Nevertheless, one can understand if Californians would feel that their national democracy is failing them. Californians might be accepting of these circumstances if it was a matter of their preferences being out-voted by Americans in other states in an easily defended process. But that is not the case. At some point, this situation stops being tolerated.

Until the rules are changed, those who are disadvantaged by the current system have to fight an uphill battle to get their share of attention in the halls of power. That doesn’t mean they can never win. But it takes exceptional effort or unusual circumstances.

— Thank you to Jordan Hensley for his research and analytic assistance.

Michael Ettlinger

Written by

Director, Carsey School of Public Policy, University of New Hampshire. USA. Fmr @pewtrusts @amprog. Views here are expressed in a personal capacity.

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