A BASIC MATTER OF DEMOCRACY

By Norman Solomon

" A basic principle of democracy is that every person's vote
should have equal weight. So we might expect some public discourse
about the fact that the U.S. Senate is fundamentally undemocratic.
"

"Today, in the 100-member Senate,
cattle may be more equitably represented than people
.

 "Less than 1 million people in Montana have as
much representation in the United States Senate as more than 33
million people in California.
"

 "Such disparities are increasing. All of the eight states that
gained more than 1 million between 1990 and 2000 are among the 25
most populous states. As the population gaps between states continue
to widen, so do the inequalities of Senate representation.
"

"But this is not important to news media -- for reasons that are
both understandable and disturbing.
A predominant view is that the
matter was settled back in the late 18th century.
"

          A basic principle of democracy is that every person's vote
should have equal weight. So we might expect some public discourse
about the fact that the U.S. Senate is fundamentally undemocratic.
But it's a complete non-issue among politicians and journalists
alike.

     One of the key roles of news media should be to raise important
questions that powerful people in government don't want to ask -- or
answer. However, while thousands of reporters and pundits stay busy
with all kinds of stories about politics, they keep detouring around
a central tilt of the national legislature's upper chamber.

     Like the "purloined letter" openly displayed in a famous tale by
Edgar Allan Poe, the Senate's huge structural flaw is right in front
of us all the time -- but we don't see it as anything more than an
eternal legacy of the nation's political heritage.

     The past has ways of enduring. Today, in the 100-member Senate,
cattle may be more equitably represented than people.

     For instance, Montana -- with a total of 902,195 residents,
according to the 2000 census -- has a pair of U.S. senators. So does
California, with a population of 33,871,648.

     In other words, less than 1 million people in Montana have as
much representation in the United States Senate as more than 33
million people in California.

     Voters who live just a few miles apart can wield vastly
different amounts of leverage in Senate races. If a citizen moved
across the border from Pennsylvania (pop. 12,281,054) to Delaware
(pop. 783,600), the impact of his or her ballot would increase by a
factor of about 15.

     A combined total of nearly 40 million people live in the states
that rank second and third in population, Texas and New York. They
get four senators. Meanwhile, a total of scarcely more than 1 million
people live in Vermont and Wyoming. They, too, get four senators.

     Of course, there are historic explanations. Back in 1787, small
states wanted safeguards against being out-muscled in Congress by big
states. But what began as a realpolitik deal to get the Constitution
of the United States ratified is now, more than 200 years later,
largely an anachronism that cuts against high-flung rhetoric about
American democracy.

     In the mid-1960s, the U.S. Supreme Court finally put a stop to
similar skewed distribution of seats in more than a dozen state
legislatures, where it often seemed that apportionment was based on
acreage or cows rather than human beings. Those imbalances had the
effect of devaluing ballots cast by people who lived in urban areas.

     The nation's highest court ruled that such undemocratic setups
were unconstitutional, violating the principle of one person, one
vote. But the ongoing comparable arrangement for the U.S. Senate
is -- by definition -- constitutional. It's a built-in barrier to
democracy, enshrined in Article I, Section 3.

     Sure, the two-senators-per-state formula was satisfactory to the
framers of the Constitution. By the way, they were the same fellows
who went along with slavery and confined voting rights to certain
white males. They were also the same guys who stipulated that U.S.
senators had to be chosen by state legislatures instead of by direct
election -- an arrangement that persisted until adoption of the 17th
Amendment in 1913.

     The 2000 census found that 10 states -- California, Texas, New
York, Florida, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, New Jersey and
Georgia -- had an aggregate population of 152 million people. They
get the same representation in the U.S. Senate as the total of 8.3
million people who live in the 10 least-populated states (Wyoming,
Vermont, Alaska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Delaware, Montana, Rhode
Island, Hawaii and New Hampshire).

     Such disparities are increasing. All of the eight states that
gained more than 1 million between 1990 and 2000 are among the 25
most populous states. As the population gaps between states continue
to widen, so do the inequalities of Senate representation.

     But this is not important to news media -- for reasons that are
both understandable and disturbing. A predominant view is that the
matter was settled back in the late 18th century.

     When I called a New York Times reporter on the Senate beat,
David E. Rosenbaum, he commented that disproportionate allocation of
Senate seats is not a present-day media concern "for the same reason
that we don't write about what happened to the Indians." He added:
"The Founding Fathers set it up this way on purpose. It's not news."
And Rosenbaum could not resist a bit of sophisticated sarcasm: "This
is a really really big issue about 225 years ago."

     True, the flagrantly undemocratic structure of the Senate is not
an issue today. But maybe it should be.

 

Norman Solomon is executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy (I'd recommend a visit to the site), a nationwide consortium of public-policy researchers. He has written op-ed pieces for Boston Globe, Washington Post, Newsday, New York Times, Miami Herald, Los Angeles Times, USA Today and Baltimore Sun, and is a far more successful writer than Alex Sandell will ever be.  His column, normally titled, "Media Beat," is nationally syndicated in a wide variety of newspapers.  If you'd like to see his weekly "Media Beat" column published on the opinion page of your local daily newspaper(s), please contact the opinion-page editor at the paper(s) and suggest that the paper give his column a try. Please mention to editors that his weekly column is available to newspapers from Creators Syndicate. Norman Solomon's latest book is "The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media." 

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