Yesterday the United States Senate voted by a 55-45 margin to require background checks before all commercial sales of guns. Because of the filibuster threat, however, the proposal failed, needing 60 votes to move forward.
That in itself is bad enough. That a measure supported by 90% of Americans and 55% of their elected officials could be torpedoed by the other 45% is a reflection of the dysfunction of the Senate in our era of the knee-jerk filibuster. But as it turns out, the full story is even worse.
Senate seats are, of course, allocated by geography, not population. The phrase “one man, one vote” had not yet been coined when the founders drew up the Constitution, and the Senate’s two-seats-per-state structure was intended as a drag on democratic pressures.
In the two centuries since, however, as the idea of democracy has become less controversial, the anti-democratic character of the Senate has become more pronounced. In the nation’s first census, Virginia, with 734,000 residents, had a population thirteen times the size of Delaware, with 55,000. Today California has a population of more than 38 million, some sixty-five times as large as Wyoming, with 576,000 residents.
Yes, you read that right. Fewer people live in Wyoming today than lived in Virginia at the time of the Revolution. Wyoming has half the population of the Bronx. It’s a little bigger than Fresno. It’s small, is what I’m saying.
Now, on many issues, Senate votes wind up more-or-less representing the will of the country as a whole. When Idaho and Maine cancel each other out, and Georgia and Michigan do, and so on, then the full tally can wind up somewhere close to where it should be. But on other questions — mass transit funding, say, or guns, the tiny rural states can wind up outvoting the huge urban ones, in defiance of the national popular will.
Yesterday’s vote was one of those times.
In twenty-one of the nation’s 50 states, both Senators yesterday voted in favor of the Manchin-Toomey background check amendment. Although those 42 Senators represent less than half the body, they represent more than half the country — 157 million people out of 313 million. The 16 states whose Senators both voted against the amendment, in contrast, represent less than a quarter of the nation, but nearly a third of the senate. That’s the equivalent of dividing the country up into states of equal population, but giving the no-vote states three senators each, and the yes-vote states just two. It’s wildly disproportionate.
And what of the other states, the ones who split their votes yesterday? Well, if you allocate half of their population to each senator, and add up the totals, you find that senators representing 62.7% of the nation’s population voted for Manchin-Toomey yesterday.
Ninety percent of the country supported it. The representatives of sixty-three percent of the nation supported it. Fifty-five percent of the Senate supported it.
But still it failed.
That’s not democracy. It’s the other thing.