It's Time to Abolish the Senate

On Nov. 3, voters across the nation will become pawns in a travesty of democracy. In 34 states — including Massachusetts and my home state of Minnesota — 35 Senate seats are up for grabs. As voters go to the polls, turn in the last mail-in ballots and wait anxiously for results, the hidden gears of the American government will creak into motion and give some voters vastly more power than others.

Now, this isn’t a government conspiracy; nobody is literally throwing out votes or committing voter fraud. Rather, voters in California will be shortchanged to benefit voters in Kansas because of the structure of the United States Senate, one of the two houses of our legislature. Instead of apportioning seats by population to facilitate democratic governance, America’s founders created the Senate to do the opposite. The Constitution calls for two senators from each state, and in its original version, those senators were appointed by state legislatures. Though we now elect senators directly, the more fundamental inequity of the Senate — that states receive representation rather than people — persists.

Fast forward and the Senate has become a twisted, minority rule institution. In the Nov. 3 elections, Californians will elect one senator to represent 39.5 million residents. The citizens of Montana, Kansas, Idaho, Wyoming, Nebraska, South Dakota, Iowa, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Tennessee, West Virginia, Maine, New Hampshire, Arizona, Rhode Island and Kentucky will elect a total of sixteen senators to represent the same number of people.

In other words, for the purposes of the United States Senate, the will of a voter in California — whether conservative, progressive, moderate, radical or anything else — is worth one-sixteenth as much as the will of a voter in those other states. The same is true for other big states like Texas, whose 29 million residents are also underrepresented in the Senate.

These disparities are reflected in the Senate’s decisions. Last week, the senators who voted to confirm Amy Coney Barrett to the highest court in the nation represented fewer Americans than the senators in the minority. Unsurprisingly, the same thing happened during the impeachment proceedings last winter and Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court in 2018. The nation’s founders intended that the Senate be a check on the worst excesses of democracy, not a group of out-of-touch crooks hell-bent on confirming extremist judges and cementing minority rule.

If you need further proof that the Senate no longer cares about even appearing democratic, consider what the so-called “majority” leader Mitch McConnell wrote about the For the People Act (H.R. 1), a sweeping bill passed by House Democrats in 2019 that would institute popular reforms in campaign finance, political ethics and voting rights. McConnell called the changes a “partisan power grab” and refused to allow the bill to come to a vote on the Senate floor. In this case, one senator, representing 4.5 million people in Kentucky, overrode the democratically-elected representatives of over 163 million Americans in order to kill innocuous reforms like designating Election Day a federal holiday.

McConnell and other senators are rightly worried about democratic reforms like H.R. 1 because higher turnout would likely disrupt their short-term control of the Senate. However, McConnell surely feels safe over the long term. There’s only so much legislation can do when the Constitution enshrines the power of the few over the many.

Some might defend the Senate and argue that in a federalized republic, states need representation in the federal government. However, this is a misguided belief. Our federal government is not supposed to be a government for and by the states; it is a government for and by us. People should be represented in Congress, not states. It’s easy enough to represent a state by its House delegation if need be, which is already done in the case of an electoral college tie.

Another argument in favor of the Senate is that it ensures people in rural areas have adequate representation in the federal government. The story goes that if you get rid of the Senate, rural areas will lose the representation they deserve in Congress. However, those very same rural areas will still be geographically represented in the House of Representatives.

What’s at stake is not the adequacy of rural representation but instead rural over-representation. I have yet to hear a coherent argument for why rural voters should be advantaged in the Senate while Black voters are disadvantaged. Not to mention that for every rural voter in Kansas whom the Senate (and the Electoral College) advantages, another is disadvantaged in states like California and New York, where high urban populations allow state-wide candidates to ignore rural areas. 

Besides, abolishing the Senate is only the beginning of what we could do to make our congress more representative. If we replace the Senate with something new, then everyone could be better represented.

Right now, both houses of Congress are filled with geographic representatives, which means that they overlap in function. In many ways, the Senate is simply a less effective version of the House. A better-designed Senate could represent us ideologically rather than geographically. Here’s just one possible replacement.

First, we divide the country into a small number of equally-populated regions, maybe six or so. Then, we proportionally elect around eighteen senators from each region in much the same way that parliamentary systems elect their legislatures. You’d be able to rank, score or otherwise indicate your preferred choices among the various parties on the ballot, then seats would be distributed according to the final tallies.

In such a system, even minority parties would gain representation in the new Senate, since all they’d have to do to earn a seat is break a certain vote threshold. No voter would ever be left without a representative in either body since everyone would have a House member and at least one Senator from their region who shares their perspective on the world. The Senate regions would be apportioned to equal populations so no one voter is given any more power than another.

A proportional Senate is just one possible improvement. Other people have proposed allocating Senate seats among states differently, providing better representation for U.S. territories like Puerto Rico and Guam or splitting bigger states into smaller ones. But before we agree on a replacement, we must agree that we need to abolish the Senate.

In fact, there’s a strong case to be made for abolishing the Senate without a replacement. In the last century, Congress has steadily lost power at the hand of the executive branch. Eliminating one of its often-warring houses would streamline Congress and give it the vigor to take back its constitutional powers. The House already represents us well, allowing for huge variety in ideology yet encouraging individuals to break party lines on bipartisan issues. Right now, the highly-representative House is steamrolled by the Senate, so simply eliminating the latter would improve our democracy.

Whatever we decide to do, one thing is clear: the Senate has got to go. Our country cannot be run by a cabal of extremist Senators representing a minority of America. A well-organized democratic movement to abolish the Senate will succeed if we decide to work for it. And if we don’t, then we’re doomed to a government stricken by the rigor mortis of McConnell’s obstructionism. All it would take is a constitutional amendment, which we’ve used time and again in our nation’s history to rectify grievous errors in our constitution.
The longer we wait to institute democracy, the harder it gets. Once this election is over, let’s start building the groundwork for abolition. Until then, drink water, get sleep and never let authoritarianism reign.