How the States Nobody Lives in Got to Elect All Those Senators

Wyoming may have just one-sixty-sixth the human population of Virginia, but it sure has more river otters than Virginia does.

Photo by Karen Bleier/AFP/GettyImages

The New Republic argues that piddly states like Wyoming don’t deserve their over-representation in the U.S. Senate. (The hook, of course, is that Liz Cheney is running for a Senate seat there, and her electorate will be smaller than the one she’d have faced had she stayed in Virginia and run for the House.) Nate Cohn* makes the most stark case that this representation skews the representation we get in Congress.

Wyoming has the highest gun ownership rate and the highest level of carbon emissions per capita—the latter by a wide, wide margin. It is the least populous state: California has 66 times as many people, and an equal number of senators. And Wyoming, along with the other small states, is 90 percent white. The Senate reduces the representation of non-white voters, who are concentrated in the most populous states, by about one-third.

This level of population-skewing is—well, not new, but much more than could have been envisioned when the Senate was designed. In the 1790 census, the first after the Constitution was ratified, the most populous state (Virginia) had 13 times as many people as the least (Delaware, my home state). If you don’t count slaves, the gap was about 10 to 1. Still a gap, but hardly the 66-to-1 population ratio of our most populous state, California, to Wyoming. Actually, the current population of Wyoming (576,412) is considerably smaller than that of Virginia (747,610) at the first census.

But it’s too late to argue about this. The appetite for new state creation is sated, and the decisions of 19th-century politicians to vastly overcount the West are going to go unchallenged. It’s a little strange, when you think on it, because the origins of some of these states were nakedly political.

- How did Nevada become a state in 1864, when its population was far below the standard for statehood? Republicans wanted it in the union in time to vote for Lincoln, submitting its constitution two weeks before the election. (Only 16,420 voters cast ballots that year.)

- Why are there “North” and “South” Dakotas? Because the 1889 act that split up the Dakota territory was passed by Republicans who wanted two more senators in an area of the country that broke their way.

Obviously, our politics have become too partisan to ever again engineer such speedy schemes to engineer the country for partisan advantage. Pennsylvania Republicans can’t even rig their Electoral College vote by congressional district!

*Correction, July 17, 2013: David Weigel originally stated that the New Republic had two articles on small states being overrepresented in the Senate. He also misidentified the author of the article based on this.