The 2021 Senate is Exceedingly Unrepresentative In Multiple Ways

Michael Ettlinger and Jordan Hensley

The population of states represented by Democratic senators sums to 26% more people than the population of states represented by Republican senators — 202 million compared to 160 million. Yet only half the Senate’s seats are held by Democrats. A Black American is 16% less represented in the Senate than an American on average; A Latinx American 32% less. The under-representation of residents in populous states in the Senate that causes these distortions was true at the Senate’s creation, but it’s much more accentuated now than in the 18th century . . . even as the rationales offered for that under-representation have dissipated to substance-free platitudes.

To make matters worse, as the Senate has grown less representative, it has adopted arcane rules to give a minority of senators, representing a fraction of the country, the power to block legislation. In the current Senate, 41 Republican senators representing as few as 75 million people can block most legislation from even coming to a vote — thwarting the will of a group of Democratic and Republican senators representing as many as 270 million Americans.

As we’ve more fully explained elsewhere, people of color are underrepresented in the U.S. Senate while other groups are over-represented — as the chart below shows. The upshot is that because Black, Latinx, and Asian residents are disproportionately concentrated in large states which have the same number of senators as smaller, whiter states, these Americans have much less representation than their white compatriots.

This skew in representation would be partially addressed by adding senators for the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. The impact of this on representation by demographic group can be seen in the table below — reproduced from another prior article. Adding these states and their senators helps with the under-representation of people of color, but would hardly solve that problem or make the Senate equitable.

Even if the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico were to elect four Democrats to the Senate, far from a foregone conclusion, Democrats would represent 29% more of the population than Republicans but have only 8% more votes. Furthermore, if votes were along party lines and the Senate rules aren’t changed, just 42 Republican senators representing as few as 75 million people could block action favored by the 54 Democratic senators representing 206 million Americans.

Director, Carsey School of Public Policy, UNH. Fmr Clinton-Kaine transition, @pewtrusts @amprog @economicpolicy @taxjustice. Views here in a personal capacity.