The 2023–2024 U.S. Senate Is Exceedingly Unrepresentative in Multiple Ways

Michael Ettlinger
3 min readDec 5, 2022

Racial and Partisan Under- and Over-Representation in the U.S. Senate

By Michael Ettlinger and Jordan Hensley

[Updated March 10, 2023]

The U.S. Senate is under Democratic control by a bare 51–49 majority. The Democrats got the most votes in the 2022 elections and won enough Senate elections, so that is as it should be. Nevertheless, the Senate is exceedingly unrepresentative in multiple ways.

For starters, the population of states represented by Democratic senators sum to 36% more people than the population of states represented by Republican senators — 204 million compared to 150 million — but the Democrats only have the slimmest possible Senate majority at 51–49. Those in states that voted for Democratic senators are underrepresented. This underrepresentation has important consequences. In the face of united Republican opposition, Democratic legislative priorities can only advance in the body with absolute unanimity among Democratic senators. Confirmations of President Biden’s nominees also face more resistance than if the Senate were truly representative.

The distorted representation found in the Senate is, of course, due to the historic anachronism of having states be represented in the Senate instead of people. With Democrats more concentrated in larger states they are less represented. California gets just two senators despite having 68 times the population of Wyoming, which also gets two senators. Wyoming Republicans are much more represented in the US Senate than are California Democrats.

The distortion of representation in the Senate goes beyond the partisan. As we have written before, it has significant ramifications along other divides as well — racial and ethnic lines importantly. A Black American is 16% less represented in the Senate than an American on average; A Latino American 33% less, an Asian American 29% less. The chart below shows the consequences for representation of the relative concentration of different groups in larger or smaller states, each with the same number of senators.

Methodology explained in earlier article

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. Forty-one Republican senators representing as few as 76 million people can block most legislation from even coming to a vote — thwarting the will of a group of Democratic and Republican senators representing 270 million Americans.

The distortion of our representative government by the structure of the Senate, and the rules it has adopted, leads to policy choices that are closer to the will of those who are represented than the collective will of all Americans. That has been a problem for generations and, to be realistic, is extremely unlikely to change in the foreseeable future. That doesn’t, however, mean that no progress can be made. The Senate rules could evolve — as they have in the past. Also, the addition of new states that would balance out representation would help, as we have analyzed elsewhere. Until then, all that those who are underrepresented can to do is demand that their voices be heard. The founding fathers were not supportive of those voices at the time of the founding, but they did articulate principles that are no longer served by the structure of the Senate, which was, even then, an artifact of political compromise not a manifestation of the foundational principle of government by the consent of the governed. That is a principle which, in the end, serves us all and a principle worth fighting for.

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Michael Ettlinger

Views not necessarily those of affiliated orgs. Senior fellow ITEP http://tinyurl.com/4bbkbmsb, fellow @CarseySchool, author. More: http://tinyurl.com/2xvs8sr4