It is well known that states are overrepresented in the U.S. political system. For example, Wyoming has 0.2% of the U.S. population but has 0.6% of the Electoral College votes for President, and 2% of the U.S. senators; while California has 12% of the population, 10% of the electoral votes, and still only 2% of the senators. To put it another way: Wyoming has 6 electoral votes and 2 senators per million voters, while California has 1.5 electoral votes and 0.06 senators per million voters. There is also a disparity in federal funding; for example, Wyoming received $7200 and California only $5600 in direct federal spending per capita in 2001.
On the whole, the disparity in the Electoral College is pretty minor, but the U.S. Senate disparity is huge: the 21 smallest states have the population of California but 42 Senators compared to California’s two.
Other countries too
We have looked at other countries (Mexico, Canada, Japan, Argentina, Thailand, . . .) and found similar patterns: smaller states (provinces) have more legislative representatives per capita and more spending per capita.
For any country, we can summarize the relationship of representation and population by making a graph, with one dot per state (province), plotting the logarithm of #representatives per capita on the y-axis, and the logarithm of population on the x-axis. The graph typically has a negative slope: larger states within a country tend to have fewer representatives per person.
We then fit a regression line to the data and summarize it by the slope. A slope of 0 is complete fairness with respect to population size: neither small nor large states get more per-capita representation. A slope of -1 is like the U.S. Senate, with a huge imbalance in representation per person. A positive slope would imply that voters in large states are actually overrepresented.
What do the data look like? Slopes are typically negative, ranging from 0 down to -1. Small states consistently get more representatives per person.
Similarly, we make graphs of log(federal spending per capita) vs. log(population) for the states in each country, and we find negative slopes throughout. Typical slopes are between -0.2 and -0.5, so that small states get more funding per person–no surprise, given their overrepresentation.
Why do we care?
Well, it seems unfair, violating the “one-person, one-vote” norm. The spending inequalities represent real money. Also, it’s interesting to see such a strong pattern. If it only occurred in U.S., we’d wonder what was special about our system. Since the small-state bias seems to occur all over, we wonder what general features of political systems make it possible.
How did it happen and how does it persist?
There are lots of possible stories. In countries such as the United States that formed from federations, the small states had some bargaining power in the constitution-writing process. (It has been pointed out, however, that the ratio between the largest and smallest state populations has increased greatly over the lifetime of the U.S.) Similarly, small states have some veto power in the European Union, which may have help explain how they have achieved their overrepresentation in the Council of Ministers.
Small states tend to be more rural and have larger land areas per person, both of which may be sources for federal spending (although this wouldn’t explain the overrepresentation).
The USA Today effect
Another set of reasons for inequality to persist is if it’s not recognized as such. Suppose we were to think of states as persons. Then it makes sense to give each state an equal number of Senators–that’s equal representation, right? From an individualist standpoint, this sounds silly, but in many contexts, the states are presented as equals.
For example, USA Today has a feature with news from each of the 50 states. There are a lot more people in Los Angeles or Chicago than in several of the smallest states, but they manage to find an equal-length snippet from each. It’s not always easy! For example, here’s Idaho’s entry for today, October 15:
Post Falls – Families are protesting the periodic removal of mementos they place on graves at the Evergreen Cemetery. The items include ceramic angels, American flags and baby bracelets. Cemetery sexton Bob Harvego says the city must keep the graves tidy and that the mementos are stored.
A cognitive illusion
To think of it another way, California has 12% of the U.S. population. Suppose it were overrepresented and get 40% of the Senators. It would bother people that almost every other Senator is from California–it would just seem weird, and it would be clear that the state is overrepresented. But, here in the real world, the 21 smallest states–whose total population is less than California’s–get 42 senators, people don’t seem to mind that! These small states have different names, so their overrepresentation is not so obvious.
[no link to a paper here; megumi and the rest of us are still working on the paper summarizing the empirical results and possible explanations]