DC Statehood Would Increase Senate Malapportionment. This Would be Bad for American Democracy.
As the effort to make Washington, D.C. the nation’s 51st state moves closer to fruition, it is high time to talk about what D.C. statehood would mean for one of the most undemocratic features of American government: the malapportionment of the U.S. Senate.
Malapportionment is the technical term for a situation in which a country’s system of representation results in the votes of some citizens weighing more than the votes of others. In a country with single-member legislative districts like the U.S., malapportionment occurs when legislative constituencies have vastly different population sizes.
Until the early-1960s, malapportionment was prevalent among numerous American legislative bodies at the local, state, and federal levels. In state legislatures, representation was usually based on local county or town boundaries, resulting in instances where rural counties with several hundred residents enjoyed the exact same amount of representation as urban counties with hundreds of thousands (or even millions) of residents. But in a series of decisions collectively known as “the reapportionment cases,” the U.S. Supreme Court largely put an end to these undemocratic arrangements and mandated the standard of equal-population districts that came to be known as “one-person, one-vote.”
Despite its extensive reach, however, the reapportionment cases left intact a malapportioned system of representation in a single (but highly important) American legislative body: the U.S. Senate. The reason the Supreme Court could not end the malapportionment of the Senate is simple: the requirement that all states, regardless of population, enjoy equal representation in the Senate is what the constitutional scholar Sanford Levinson calls a “hard-wired” feature of the U.S. Constitution. In other words, it is written so clearly and plainly in the constitutional text that no amount of creative judicial theorizing can get rid of it. But it gets worse: the last line of Article V of the Constitution (which lays out the process for constitutional amendment) stipulates that the amendment process cannot be used to deprive a state of its “equal suffrage in the Senate” without its consent. Hence, many of us might be upset that Wyoming (population: 576,851) enjoys the same representation in the Senate as California (population: 39,538,223), but there is no national constitutional process that the American people can employ to change this reality. Once a state has been admitted into the union, it is entitled to the same number of senators as all other states for as long as our Constitution is in effect.
Currently, the U.S. Senate is among the most malapportioned national legislative bodies in the advanced world. Because Washington, D.C. has a much smaller population than the vast majority of U.S. states, D.C. statehood would make the Senate malapportionment problem even worse. Based on my calculations, it would put the U.S. just a notch below Brazil (not exactly a model country as far as democratic practices are concerned) in terms of upper-chamber representational inequality.
Democrats and progressives, who often speak about Senate malapportionment as a major threat to American democracy, seem largely unconcerned about the effects of D.C. statehood on malapportionment. Given the near certainty that a State of Washington, D.C. would elect two Democratic senators, one might interpret this indifference as an example of partisan hypocrisy. I, however, prefer a somewhat more charitable explanation: recognizing that the constitutional requirement of equal state representation in the Senate cannot be changed, and mindful that the malapportionment of the Senate currently benefits the GOP (since most, though not all, of the country’s small states are dependably Republican), Democrats see D.C. statehood as a way of working within the system to “level the playing field” on their behalf.
While this sort of short-term thinking is understandable, it should not be the main consideration when making an effectively irreversible decision like statehood. The geographic and demographic coalitions of the American political parties in 2021 will not last forever. In the future, California and Washington, D.C. may not be on the same side of the national partisan divide, so progressives who care about political equality should ask themselves if they really want to put in place an arrangement that will give these two jurisdictions (one of which has over 55 times as many people as the other) equal voting power in the U.S. Senate in perpetuity.
Thinking about the future is especially important in light of what population trends may bring. Despite the fact that U.S. population growth slowed in the 2010s, the country’s population is still expected to increase by tens of millions in the coming decades. If D.C.’s economy remains robust and its housing costs are contained, its own population growth might be proportionate to or larger than that of the U.S. for a while. In the long run, however, the District’s small physical size will likely limit its potential for population growth relative to many states. Indeed, D.C. is not just much smaller in land area than all fifty states; it is also significantly smaller in land area than any of America’s fifteen most populous cities. Thus, there is at least a good possibility that, as the populations of other states grow by millions, the population of the State of Washington, D.C. would remain relatively stable, exacerbating Senate malapportionment even further.
Considering future population trends also calls into question one of the strongest arguments that D.C. statehood advocates make: that statehood for D.C. can advance racial equality by providing a jurisdiction with a large percentage of Black residents with representation in the Senate. As has been widely reported, the percentage of Black residents in D.C. has gone down substantially as the city has gentrified and African Americans have left for the Maryland and Virginia suburbs. What was a 71% Black city in 1970 is a 45% Black city now. If current demographic trends continue, D.C. may become a large enclave of upscale professionals in the future. There are many social groups in America that are underrepresented in the U.S. Congress, but upscale professionals are not one of them.
Nothing I have written above is meant to downplay or belittle the very legitimate complaints of D.C. residents regarding their disenfranchisement from Congress. Clearly, having a large set of citizens living in and paying taxes to a regime in which they enjoy no legislative representation is inconsistent with basic democratic values. But there are solutions to these problems other than statehood that merit a closer look. The much-maligned idea of “retrocession” is nonetheless a serious one, and D.C.’s unique political identity can be accommodated by granting it extensive home rule powers within the State of Maryland. Alternatively, D.C. residents can support a proposed constitutional amendment to have themselves counted as residents of Maryland for federal elections only (while maintaining D.C.’s distinct status for all other matters). Both these solutions would result in D.C. residents gaining congressional representation in ways that do not exacerbate Senate malapportionment.
Too often over the course of America’s history, states were admitted to the union for purely political reasons, with little consideration paid to the long-term costs of doing so to the principle of political equality (of individuals, not states). We should learn from the past and not make the same mistake (indeed, potentially a much bigger one) now.