|Map by Neil Freeman, 2012|
Click to enlarge
Although the names he applies to the map reveal a profound understanding of what geographers call sense of place, Freeman began his project with something more practical in mind: addressing a somewhat subtle aspect of voter suppression. On his presciently-named blog Fake is the New Real, he explained the iterative process by which began to define his states, and goes on to describe some of the detailed considerations. Although he insisted that the map is primarily a work of art, he was careful to provide a very cogent, geographically-informed list of advantages and disadvantages were the map to be adopted.
I learned of the map from a much more recent article by blogger Josh Jones, who discusses the map in the context of more recent conversations about gerrymandering. Together, the two writers provide a lot of thought-provoking observations about the reasons for the original two-senator-per-state rule and about its implications for presidential elections. Their work exemplifies geography in plain sight -- a reality that seems so simple that it escapes notice, but that is in fact deeply complicated and even fraught.
Crunching the As-Is Numbers
I had long ago been introduced to the idea that the disparate size of the states results in wide disparities in the degree to which residents of each state are represented in the Senate. Relative to Californians or Texans, for example, residents of Wyoming have a much greater likelihood of having met a senator in person, and they certainly have a greater likelihood of gaining the attention of a senator's staff members.
It was not until reading Jones' article that I realized that with a few minutes on a spreadsheet, I could quantify the effect of these disparities on the representation by party. Some academics dismiss Wikipedia as a resource, but for this exercise it was perfectly appropriate. I looked up the current membership of the Senate, which lists members in a tabular format that was easy to copy into a spreadsheet. Those wishing to check on this list after end of this year will need to check the permanent entry for the 115th Congress, but the current list can always be used to update this exercise. Ambitious and curious readers could even work their way backward through previous years to get a sense of how the patterns I have quantified may have changed over time.
The spreadsheet is available to view, and is entitled Is the Senate -- In Effect -- Gerrymandered? I use the phrase "in effect" because the imbalance I describe does not result from gerrymandering in the widely-understood sense of manipulating the boundaries of voting districts to gain disproportionate representation. Nor does it fall into the more widely-used sense in which experts use the term: the manipulation of other aspects of voting regulations to gain partisan advantage. So the situation lacks the element of intentionality that we see in such notorious cases as are currently being contested with respect to seats in the House of Representatives.
So what is the imbalance like? It turns out that the two major parties tend to represent states of different sized populations. Each represents some big states -- Republican Texas but Democratic New York and California. Each also represents some very small states -- Wyoming Republican and Rhode Island Democratic, for example. Quite a few states of various sizes have split representation in the Senate -- Colorado, South Dakota, and Vermont, for example. This was the situation when I lived in Maryland years ago, and I think it can have real benefits for voters and for the decorum of the legislature.
In aggregate, though, the fact that one party tends to dominate states with smaller populations means that residents of those states have relatively greater representation in the Senate. In the spreadsheet, I allocated the populations of each state to the party of its senators, splitting the population evenly in those 1-1 states. The result is representation of 141.4 million residents by Republicans and 173.1 million residents by Democrats.
Because there are fewer Democrats than Republicans in the Senate (45 versus 53), each Senator represents a very different number of residents -- 3.8 million versus 2.7 million on average. Even more dramatically, the two independent senators represent just under a half million residents each.
What does this mean for policy, and for the idea of government of, by, and for the people? In practical terms, it means that a minority party has majority representation in both houses of Congress. Because votes in the Electoral College are allocated according to the allocation of these seats, the diminished influence of voters from large-population states directly affects presidential elections as well.
Lagniappe: DC & PR
These calculations do not include citizens in two major jurisdictions who get no Congressional representation at all -- my home town of Washington, D.C. and the internal colony of Puerto Rico. With 646,000 and 3.7 million people respectively, these unrepresented areas are equivalent in population to quite a few of the smaller states. Lack of representation has resulted in decades of annoyances, inconveniences and humiliations for the citizens of D.C., and has recently become a matter of life and death for citizens of Puerto Rico.