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1.24.2010

How Representative is the Senate Minority Anyway?

Last week's Senate election in Massachusetts had many of us thinking about the merits and demerits of the filibuster. A basic question that sprang to mind, given the well-known malapportionment of the Senate, was this: what percent of Americans are represented by the 41 would-be filibusterers? I was supremely disappointed by cyberspace to find that no one had done the calculation. After all, one of the perennial knocks on the filibuster is that the recalcitrant minority could theoretically represent as little as 10% of the population, if that set of Senators were from the smallest states.

Thankfully, Abby Blass, a graduate student here at the University of Texas has put these data together and done us all a great service. By her calculations the 41 Republicans represent 36% of Americans (assuming that each Senator represents half of his or her state). One way to think about that finding is that the constituents of the minority Senators are are only slightly over-represented. In that view, malapportionment has not resulted in a disturbingly small filibuster-capable minority.

The flip side, of course, is that Democratic Senators represent 64% of the population, and as such, speak for slightly more than the magic 3/5 supermajority of Americans. Should the Democrats decide to push through a health care bill by "reconciliation" or the "nuclear/constitutional" option (both of which seem unlikely), the fact that Democratic voters are underrepresented in the Senate might be part of the sales pitch. This is not to say that Republicans, much less the growing tea-party movement, will buy any of it.

Either way you view it, it's nice to have the facts.

3 comments:

  1. Actually, this was a major point of discussion a few weeks ago on the Tulane Law& Courts listserv. Somebody also did the calculations, albeit differently. They might be available from the listserv records.

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  2. "assuming that each Senator represents half of his or her state"

    Should we really make that assumption? It's fairly common for some senators to be elected by a plurality (i.e. supported by a minority of voters) and others by large supermajorities.

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  3. Anonymous: I wholeheartedly agree that "each senator represents half his or her state" is a heroic assumption - there are several others in my bare bones model (i.e. that all states turn out to vote at similar rates, have consistent proportions of eligible voters in the electorate, have effectively equivalent electoral institutions, as you point out... the list goes on and on). Mine was merely an extremely simple model to quickly satisfy an intellectual curiosity that went unsatisfied by a brief perusal of the internet.

    Dominic: I've just subscribed to the listserv to see if their results were similar to mine. Thanks for the infomation!

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