A San Francisco voter has 80 times less power than a Wyoming voter to determine who serves in the U.S. Senate.
Wonder why measures like gun control, abortion rights and expanded social safety net can’t get through Congress, despite their popularity with the public? Take a look at the outsized power of residents in states like Wyoming, Idaho, North Dakota and Mississippi.
Republicans hold half of the Senate’s 100 seats yet represent 45 million fewer Americans than Democrats. California’s two senators, with 39 million constituents, possess two votes, while senators from the 21 least populous states, with a combined 37 million constituents, are granted 42 votes.
So it is a little rich to hear Republicans insist that the filibuster is necessary to preserve minority rights and to ensure fairness in American democracy.
Currently, under Senate rules, Republican lawmakers representing as few as one in five Americans are able to nix any piece of legislation.
The mismatch doesn’t exist in the House, where representation is based on population. During Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s tenure, the House passed measures limiting carbon emissions and expanding preschool, health care and job protections for LGBTQ workers.
Each enjoys support from a majority of Americans; none even came up for a vote in the Senate.
The unfairness is evident in this week’s battle over voting rights, the Democrats’ top legislative priority.
It took nearly two centuries, a pair of constitutional amendments, scores of legislation and multiple court rulings for the nation to share the right to vote with women and African Americans. Democrats, who insist Republicans are erecting obstacles for their opponents to cast ballots, are facing an uphill battle in their efforts to enshrine further voter protections.
The change would require both agreement from all Democrats and a change to the filibuster, which allows 41 senators to prevent a vote on virtually all legislation. Neither seem likely. But even if Democrats succeed, the Senate will still be operating under a set of rules that enshrines inequity.
When the Constitution was written, Virginia was the largest state with a population approaching 700,000; Delaware was the smallest with barely 60,000, a ratio of almost 12 to 1. The authors of the Constitution could not have imagined that 233 years later, the disparity between states would approach 70 to one, and closer to 80 to one when just looking at registered voters.
It hardly makes sense that Cynthia Lummis was elected to the U.S. Senate from Wyoming in 2020 with virtually the same number of votes — 198,000 — that Shanell Williams received in her 2020 election to the San Francisco Community College Board. And in the Senate, Lummis has the same voting power as Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who received more than 30 times as many votes when she won reelection in 2018.
Democratic anger over Congress’ failure to advance its agenda has been directed at fellow Democratic Senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, who have opposed both policies and changes to the filibuster rule. However, none of this would be an issue if Democrats could win more seats in small states.
Of the nation’s five least populous states, Vermont is the only one with a Democrat in the Senate. It is little wonder it is hard for Democrats to marshal support for urban priorities when the largest city among the nation’s 10 smallest states is Anchorage, Alaska, with a population under 300,000.
Those who defend the filibuster argue change should be gradual and major legislation should be bipartisan. But it grows difficult for Democrats to accomplish anything when it takes senators from just 21 states — whose combined population is smaller than California’s — to hold veto power.
There are few remedies in sight. Changing the filibuster rules could be accomplished with a majority vote, though Democrats currently lack the 50 votes to do so. Changing the composition of the Senate would require a constitutional amendment — approved by two-thirds of Congress and three-quarters of the states — which is unthinkable.
A proposal to divide California into six states failed to qualify as a ballot measure in 2016. While there are many reasons to oppose it, it would enlarge the state’s influence in the Senate from two votes to 12.
There are advantages to being big. Pelosi’s quest for the speakership was greatly enhanced by her large home-state delegation. The size of the California House delegation — 50% larger than any other state — makes it a formidable force.
However, in a nation which asserted in its Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal,’’ Senate rules guarantee that some are more equal than others.
Marc Sandalow is associate director of the University of California’s Washington Program. He has written about California politics from the nation’s capital for almost 30 years.