The Senate is so rigged that Democrats may never control it ever again

It would be nice to live in a democratic republic.

Former Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV), the last Democrat to lead the Senate -- and possibly the last ever. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Former Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV), the last Democrat to lead the Senate -- and possibly the last ever. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

It’s the day after Election Day, and Democrats just handed Republicans the GOP’s collective asses. Though the sheer magnitude of the Republican loss remains uncertain — ballots are still being counted, and blue California may take weeks to complete its count — early projections suggest that Democratic House candidates may have won the national popular vote by 7 points.

That’s a bigger margin of victory than the Republican wave in 2010 (6.8 points) or the GOP wave in 2014 (5.7 points).

And yet, it wasn’t enough. Republicans will hold the Senate and, with it, the power to fill the federal courts with Republican stalwarts.

This is partially due to the absolutely brutal map Democrats faced in 2018. Thanks to strong performances in 2006 and 2012, Democrats had to defend 26 seats this election cycle, while Republicans only had to defend 9.


But this unfavorable map is only a small part of the story. In the outgoing Senate — the Senate that placed Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court — the 49 senators in the Democratic “minority” represent almost 40 million more people than the Republican “majority.” In the incoming Senate, the Democratic “minority” will still represent millions more people — despite the fact that Republicans grew their “majority” last night.

And this malapportionment is only going to get worse. By 2040, according to Baruch College’s David Birdsell, about 70 percent of Americans are expected to live in just 15 states. That means that the vast majority of Americans will control just 30 percent of the Senate, while the remaining 70 senators are elected by just 30 percent of the nation.

America’s endgame, in other words, is a nation that can no longer meaningfully be described as a democracy — and we are already very far along to that destination. The state of Wyoming has only 573,720 people, according to U.S. Census estimates. That’s 1/68th of the population of California. And yet the 39,776,830 Californians are represented by just two senators — the same number as Wyoming.

Indeed, to put the case against Wyoming into fuller context, Wyoming has fewer people than Milwaukee, Baltimore, or Louisville. The fourth largest city in California, San Francisco, has more than 300,000 more residents than the entire state of Wyoming. In total, there are 31 U.S. cities with a greater population than Wyoming. One of them, the nation’s capital, has no representation whatsoever in the Senate.

There are steps Democrats could take to restore something resembling democracy to the United States. An incrementalist approach to the Wyoming Problem would be to admit the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico as states (Puerto Rico, it is worth noting, has about six times as many people as Wyoming). A more aggressive approach would be to divide big blue states like California into multiple states, each with two senators apiece. Such an approach would require the consent of these states’ legislatures, but it is permissible under the Constitution.


Indeed, it might even be possible for four, five, or six Californias to form an interstate compact that leaves their current governance structure intact. In this scenario, the Californias would still be governed by a single legislature, a single governor, and a single judicial branch, they’d just receive a fairer allocation of senators.

But these solutions depend upon Democrats regaining control of Congress ever again. The Constitution provides that “new States may be admitted by the Congress into this Union,” but it is entirely possible that Senate malapportionment now makes it impossible for Democrats to regain a majority in that body.

On the other hand, should Democrats somehow beat the odds and regain control of the elected branches in 2020, they should know that they must act quickly. The transient majority they gain that year may be their last chance to save the United States from permanent one-party rule.

UPDATE: This post has been updated to reflect the continuing uncertainty about who won one or two senate races.