How rural states are over-represented in the U.S. Senate and presidential elections

Have you ever wondered why there are so many Republicans in the U.S. Senate when it seems like most Americans, in polls and surveys, are centrist or lean left of center?

Currently, the upper chamber of Congress consists of 50 Republicans, 48 Democrats and 2 left-leaning independents who caucus with the Democrats. It’s essentially 50-50. And while Democrats have control, all it takes is one defection to cost the party the passage of crucial legislation.

Have you ever wondered why Republicans, despite losing the popular vote in 7 of the last 8 elections, remain highly competitive in presidential and senatorial elections? The winner-take-all electoral vote process makes winning a presidential race without the popular vote very realistic, but there’s something else.

Less densely-populated states, bastions of conservatism, are over-represented. In fact, the 25 most thinly populated states account for a combined 25 percent of America’s population but represent 50 percent of the U.S. Senate and 38 percent (207 of 538) of the electoral college tally in presidential elections. (See the spreadsheet below)

  • 25 percent of the population = 50 percent representation in the Senate
  • 25 percent of the population = 38 percent of electoral college electors

And of those 50 senators who represent those 25 states, 40 are Republican, just 8 are Democrats and 2 are left-leaning independents who caucus with Democrats. Also, of the 207 electoral votes representing the same 25 percent of the population, 181 were won by the Republican candidate in the 2020 U.S. Presidential Election.

What separates the 25 most densely populated states from the 25 most thinly populated states?

FiveThirtyEight.com uses something an urbanization index that captures how urban or rural a state is by calculating the natural logarithm of the average number of people living within a five-mile radius of another resident. 

How urban or rural is your state?
FiveThirtyEight’s urbanization index for each state

States on the right are the 25 most sparsely populated states per person in a five mile radius

STATEURBAN INDEXSTATEURBAN INDEX
New York12.56North Carolina10.32
New Jersey12.24Missouri10.2
California12.19Nebraska10.2
Massachusetts11.84Tennessee10.2
Nevada11.77Wisconsin10.19
Rhode Island11.72Louisiana10.18
Maryland11.71Kansas10.12
Illinois11.62South Carolina10.11
Florida11.46Oklahoma9.94
Connecticut11.41New Hampshire9.92
Arizona11.3New Mexico9.9
Texas11.17Kentucky9.79
Colorado11.15Alabama9.61
Pennsylvania11.15Idaho9.59
Washington11.12Iowa9.59
Hawaii11.09Arkansas9.26
Delaware11.01West Virginia9.11
Utah10.96North Dakota9.05
Virginia10.91Maine9.04
Ohio10.88Mississippi8.91
Michigan10.81Vermont8.84
Oregon10.71Alaska8.74
Georgia10.55South Dakota8.73
Minnesota10.46Montana8.47
Indiana10.41Wyoming8.26

Why does this discrepancy in representation exist?

When creating the branches of our government, the Founding Fathers debated a very important question:

Should each state have an equal number of representatives in the legislative branch (Congress) or should representation be based on a state’s population?

In the end, they settled on a compromise. Congress would be comprised of a lower body, the House of Representatives, and an upper body, the Senate. The House would be assigned a number of seats (for what we know as congressional districts) in proportion to a state’s population while the Senate would have the same number of seats for each state across the board.

The compromise gave more populated states a greater voice in the House while ensuring small states had equal representation in the Senate. As a result, states currently have between one and 53 representatives in the House; but there are 2 U.S. Senators per state, no matter its size.

Hence, California has 53 House Representatives (serving 53 congressional districts) while Wyoming has just one House Representative serving one House District. However, both states have 2 representatives in the Senate.

A state’s electoral college votes are determined by their number of House Representatives plus Senate Representatives. For example, California has 55 electoral votes (53 House Representatives + 2 Senate Representatives) while Wyoming has 3.

Although a state’s electoral college votes are largely based on population, results are skewed a bit because a) each state is granted 2 electors (for their representation in the Senate) across the board and b) a minimum of one elector (for their representation in the House) is granted per state.

So Wyoming, with a population of about 580,000, has 3 electoral votes while District 12 in California, with a population of about 700,000, represents just one of California’s 55 electoral votes.

In a sense, a Wyoming voter has over 3 times as much voting power as someone in California because an elector in Wyoming represents around 150,000 voters whereas a California elector represents the votes of some 500,000 residents.

And yes, it could be worse. If we added a new state to the Union that had only 10,000 residents it would still be granted 3 electors via 2 Senators and one House Representative, equaling Wyoming in legislative and electoral power.

The system itself hasn’t changed as rural voters have been over-represented for decades. What has changed is the ideological divide among rural and non-urban voters. Since Rural America is so heavily Republican, the system’s chink works to the GOP’s advantage – in the Senate and electoral college, and to a smaller degree in the House.


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