First, some history
Is the U.S. Senate an anachronism? Perhaps in the way it is currently configured, it is. If we take a look at its history, it began as a body where the smaller states of the original 13 were able to counter the ouotsized influence of the large states. Basically, it was designed to appease the small states and give them some influence, which they ostensibly wouldn’t have in the more population-based House of Representatives.
In the beginning, states chose senators not by direct election, but by choice of the various state legislatures. This remained the case until the 17th Amendment was ratified in 1913. The impetus was the increasing corruption in state legislatures that allowed special interests too large a role in the selection of senators.
For the past 110 years, the senate has been considered considerably more democratic than it had been previously.
So, what are the problems now?
The most common example that is cited is the disparity between the large states and the small states. Wyoming, the least populous state, has two senators. California, with 40 million residents (80 times the population of Wyoming) has the same two senators.
This was put into an interesting graphical form in a recent chart by the New York Times. That chart illustrates that there is a great disparity between the influence of voters in different states with regard to the senate. This can lead to situations where a minority of voters can have a disproportionate influence over national policy, as it is very possible to have a majority of the senate that represents a minority of the population.
How can this be fixed?
Of course, any changes to the structure of the government would require a constitutional amendment. There are several proposals that have been made to adjust the senate structure to make it more democratic. Like what was done 110 years ago with the 17th amendment, adjustments are occasionally necessary to modernize our institutions.
Proposal #1 – Abolish the Senate
Some advocates argue that the Senate should be abolished altogether, and that all legislative power should be concentrated in the House of Representatives, which is based on population. This is a rather radical solution and has some problems. The bicameral nature of the legislative branch functions well and acts as check on haphazard legislation. There would likely be manu unintended consequences to this proposal.
Proposal #2 – Increase the size of the Senate
Another proposal is to increase the number of senators in the Senate, and to allocate them based on population. This would help to balance out the disproportionate representation of states with small populations. It would retain the bicameral nature of the senate and provide for shifts in the location of the population.
Proposal #3 – Use ranked-choice voting
Some advocates argue that the use of ranked-choice voting can help to level the playing field, by allowing voters to rank multiple candidates in order of preference. This can help to ensure that more diverse perspectives are represented in the Senate. However, this proposal does not change the basic structure of the Senate, which is decidecly undemocratic, so it doesn’t really solve the real problem. This solution, though, would not require a constitutional amendment as it would be done at the state level.
Proposal #4 – Reform the Filibuster
The current filibuster rules in the Senate require 60 votes to pass most legislation, which can give a minority of senators a disproportionate amount of power. Some advocates argue that the filibuster should be reformed or abolished altogether, in order to make it easier for legislation to pass with a simple majority vote. This would have to come from the Senate itself, which makes its own rules, and would not require a constitutional amendment since the filibuster is a Senate rule, not a law.
While I think this would definitely make the Senate more democratic, it still would not change the problem of represenation or address the basic issue here.
There are likely other proposals as well, as this is not an exhaustive list. However, of the proposals here it seems that the only one that really addresses the structural issue in question is #2, the redistribution of seats to make the senate more representative of the population.
It’s definitely time to begin thinking about this problem, as it will likely take many years to remedy.