The Senators Who Supported Background Checks Represent Nearly Two-Thirds Of Americans

These two men represent 0.18 percent of the country, and have 2 percent of the Senate's votes

Yesterday the Senate voted 54-46 in favor of a provision that would expand background checks for gun sales, which, in the bizarro world of the United States Senate, means that the provision fails. Under the Senate’s broken rules, it takes 60 votes to do virtually anything.

As Jonathan Cohn and Eric Kingsbury point out, this result is even more anti-democratic than it appears at first glance. “If you assume, for sake of argument, each senator represents half of his or her state’s population, then senators voting for the bill represented about 194 million people, while the senators voting against the bill represented about 118 million people. That’s getting close to a two-thirds majority in favor of the measure.”

To put this in perspective, Wyoming Sens. Mike Enzi (R) and John Barrasso (R) both voted against the gun safety provision. Together, they represent a little more than half a million people. California Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D) and Barbara Boxer (D) both voted for gun safety. They represent over 38 million Americans. In other words, a voter in Wyoming enjoys 66 times as much representation in the Senate as a voter in California.

As the least populous state, Wyoming makes out like bandits when it comes to Senate representation, but they are far from alone in enjoying such a windfall. A voter in Idaho (population 1,595,728) counts as almost 24 Californians. A voter in Nebraska (population 1,845,525) counts as nearly 21 Californians. And a voter in North Dakota (population 699,628) counts as more than 54 Californians. Indeed, if you add up the combined populations of Wyoming, North Dakota, Alaska, Idaho, Nebraska, Utah, Kansas, Arkansas, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Kentucky, South Carolina, and Alabama, that still adds up to over 3 million fewer people than live in the state of California. That also adds up to 26 senators, all of whom opposed background checks.

The original Constitution created the Senate as the malapportioned body we live under today, but subsequent amendments cast serious doubt on whether the Senate still comports with our constitutional values. The Fourteenth Amendment guarantees every person “the equal protection of the laws,” a guarantee that’s since been incorporated into the protections all Americans enjoy against both states and the federal government. Moreover, as the Supreme Court explained in its landmark “one person, one vote” case, the promise of equal protection of the law includes the right to have your vote count exactly the same as anyone else’s vote. It is difficult to square the Senate with the Constitution’s one person, one vote guarantee.

Except that there’s one serious obstacle in the way of bringing the Senate in line with one person, one vote. Article V of the Constitution, which explains how constitutional amendments can be ratified, provides that “no state, without its consent, shall be deprived of its equal suffrage in the Senate.” In other words, the only way to reapportion the Senate is to pass two constitutional amendments: the first to remove the ban on amendments that end Senate malapportionment, and the second to actually end Senate malapportionment. And, of course, three-quarters of the states are required to ratify an amendment before it is written into the Constitution — ensuring that at least a few states would have to sign away their overrepresentation in the Senate in order to end overrepresentation in the Senate.

Center for American Progress Action Fund intern Jacqueline Odum contributed research to this post.