We commonly accept that the bodies which represent us are fair and representative. This is why the gerrymandering of the house, which currently result in a 20 seat advantage for the Republican party, feels so egregious to neutral observers. The senate appears to be more democratic, given that each state elects two senators and that politicians can’t game state boundaries. Unfortunately, due to the distribution of population across the states, the Senate is not representative any more… if it ever was. And the internal rules of the senate make this worse.
Small states punch way above their weight in the senate
As this illustration shows, small states disproportionately elect 2 Republican senators (in red). Conversely, a high share of large states elect Democrats (in blue). Grey indicates states that have one senator from each party.
In consequence, Republicans currently hold a slim 51 to 49 majority in the senate – but only based on the representation of 44% of the population.
Senate rules make it worse
The filibuster rule allows a subset of 40 senators to block legislation they do not approve of. This means that the 20 smallest states, representing collectively 10% of the american population, could band together to block legislation desired by 90% of citizens. Obviously, this is a theoretical example, since Mississippi and Hawaii probably won’t align on many issues. However, this illustrates how extreme the current rules are.
How is this expected to evolve over time?
According to 538, Republicans have established a strong foothold in the smaller states which have moved strongly to the right. This results in a Senate map which structurally favors Republicans. “Republicans don’t even need to win any “swing states” to win a Senate majority: 52 seats are in states where the 2016 presidential margin was at least 5 percentage points more Republican than the national outcome. By contrast, there are just 28 seats in states where the margin was at least 5 points more Democratic, and only 20 seats in swing states.”
So, what can be done about this?
It is easy to show that the Senate is not representative, however the solutions are far from obvious.
Structural reforms to allocate senators in proportion to the population of the state they represent would certainly change the game. However, all small states on either side of the political spectrum would oppose this. Indeed, all senators representing smaller states would resist losing power. So this would certainly be voted down.
In consequence, if the Democratic party wants to have a power in the Senate in proportion to their votes, they must change the number of states. Adding blue states would result in a higher number of Democratic senators.
The most obvious state to add is the state of DC. A compelling case can be made that DC deserves to have voting senators (and congressmen) as there should be no taxation without representation. The are serious movements which are pushing to convert the district into a state.
Next in line: Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico voted for full statehood in a referendum in 2017. There would certainly be some challenges on the way, such as the need for a full debt restructuring. But that would certainly not be worse than the agony of the island post hurricane Maria.
Finally, as a last resort, the largest states could split themselves into smaller states. California is a prime candidate: its size means that it is quite under-represented, and the distribution of cities would easily result in two beautiful states of Northern California and Southern California… Just like the Dakotas, or the Carolinas.