The Vastly Varying Importance of American Voters (Updated and Revised July 2021)

Michael Ettlinger
8 min readJul 13, 2021


By Michael Ettlinger and Jordan Hensley

It is no secret that the American version of democracy does not guarantee a national government reflecting the preferences expressed by the majority of voters.

  • Over seven million more people voted for Joe Biden than Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election, yet the American system for selecting the country’s leader made it a close election. President Biden prevailed only because fewer than 80,000 voters preferred him in Arizona, Georgia, Nevada and Wisconsin. In that case, the candidate favored by most voters won; but four years earlier three million more people voted for Hillary Clinton than Donald Trump and Trump won the presidency.
  • The Republicans in the Senate were the choice of 63 million voters in their most recent elections while their Democratic counterparts were the preference of 87 million voters. Nevertheless, the Senate is tied 50–50.
  • Democrats currently control the House of Representatives with about the same share of members as the share of the vote they received in 2020. This alignment between votes and control is, however, not guaranteed. As recently as 2013 and 2014 Republicans controlled the House even though Democratic candidates received more votes than Republican candidates in the 2012 elections.

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 eight presidential elections. Never before has this high a share of states been on a streak of voting for the same party for this long. 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, 121 of those 180 million live in states that have voting streaks for the Democratic candidates. It’s not surprising that the Republican candidate has now won the presidency in three of the last six elections despite 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, or 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 39.5 million people gets two senators. Wyoming with a population of 579,000: 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 politicians from 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 just under 6.5 million, making the average American one of 6.5 million constituents for each of their two senators. Californians are, however, one of 39.5 million constituents for their two senators. That makes Californians 83% less important in the Senate than the average (1/39.5 is 83% less than 1/6.5). At the other extreme, people in Wyoming are each one of 579,000 constituents, making them matter 10 times more — have 10 times the representationthan the average American.

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, and we answered, the question: How Adding Senators from Puerto Rico and DC Would Address Under-Representation.)

Democrats also disproportionately live in large states. There are 202 million people in states that Democratic senators represent and only 160 million in states Republicans represent (those add up to more than the US population of 328 million because six states have one senator from each party). The result is that 58 percent of the votes that picked the current Senate were for Democrats (or third party senators that caucus with them) while 42 percent were for Republicans. Despite this, the current Senate is tied 50–50. 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. 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 via the filibuster. 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. The geographic skew of the Senate and rules the institution has adopted have conspired to bias the chamber heavily toward Republicans.

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 geographic population distribution within states, it is not guaranteed, however, that the more popular party controls the House of Representatives. As recently as 2012 the party that got the fewer votes in House elections, the Republican Party, got the majority of the seats. We will not dive deeply into this because it has been discussed at length elsewhere. In the current House of Representatives the Democrats control 51% of the seats after accumulating 51% of the vote, while the Republicans have 49% of the seats after garnering 48% of the vote (the missing share of votes went to third parties) — but there is no guarantee that the alignment of votes and control will continue.

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. An unrepresentative system also fuels national discord. It is no coincidence that California during the Trump presidency was a center of “resistance,” not home to a steadfast loyal opposition. Hillary Clinton won the national popular vote, and got more votes in the state, 8.8 million, than the entire populations of 39 of the 50 states. California also, of course, has 12% of the U.S. population but only 2% of the nation’s senators. During periods when Californians see a national government that does not reflect their values, one can understand why they would feel that their national democracy is failing them. Californians might be accepting of that circumstance if it was a matter of their preferences being outvoted by Americans in other states in an easily defended process. But that is not the case.

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.



Michael Ettlinger

Views not necessarily those of affiliated orgs. Senior fellow ITEP, fellow @CarseySchool, author. More: