Press "Enter" to skip to content

Declining population and growing clout: Demographic shifts that undermine democracy

Sometime between the years 2040 and 2050, the demographics of the US will have shifted to such an extent that seventy percent of the people will live in just fifteen states. Put another way, thirty percent of the population will live in thirty-five states.

Those thirty-five states will hold the most rural, politically conservative, religious, and least formally educated people in the country, and their overwhelming control of the US Senate will bring on a crisis of democracy unlike any the United States has seen since its founding.

We’ve all read our Madison or been exposed, of late incessantly by reactionaries, to his reasoning for creating the United States as a republic, with some necessary democratic components, rather than as pure democracy.

In a pure democracy, Madison claimed, a common passion or interest would almost always be felt by a majority that would sacrifice the minority to achieve its goal. Madison’s primary concern was that in a pure democracy property rights would always be insecure.

For Madison and his fellow drafters of the Constitution, the purpose of government was to protect those who have, from those who don’t. “Those who hold and those who are without property,” Madison wrote in Federalist 10, “have ever formed distinct interests [classes] in society.”

When 30 percent of the population controls 70 percent of the seats in the US Senate, the United States will have government by minority

To put it more bluntly, Madison worried that his class — consisting of white men with property including both land and slaves — was in the minority position subject to the majority of property-less white men, women, Indians and African Americans, both male and female, slave and free. The founder’s bete noire, the mob.

The founders’ solution to the dangers of democracy is familiar to us—a government with three co-equal branches: legislative, executive, and judicial.

Within that system the founders also grappled with other problems. How was power to be apportioned between slave states and free states? How were states’ rights to be honored? After all, in the Articles of Confederation, the first attempt to create a government after the revolution, every state had been “sovereign, free and independent,” and every state had an equal vote in the Congress.

To solve these latter problems the founders created a bi-cameral legislature—House and Senate—and devised a system we now call the Electoral College, to choose a president. Members of the House of Representatives, the lesser of the two chambers of Congress, had two year terms, and were to be popularly elected. Each state would have members apportioned according to their population—one for every 30,000 originally, now about 730,000. But each state would have at least one member.

The Senate, the upper chamber with six-year terms, would represent the states and the propertied and slave-holding classes, and every state would have two senators. Originally chosen by the state legislatures, the Senate has been a popularly elected body since the ratification of the 17th Amendment in 1913.

In essence, the executive and Congress mirrored the British system of representation: the one, king/president; the few, House of Lords/Senate; the many, House of Commons/House of Representatives.

The Electoral College, that eighteenth century anachronism devised to keep the control of choosing a president in the hands of the ruling class, drew its members from appointments made in each state legislature.

The number of electors in each state matched the number of House members plus the two Senators. So, for example, Washington State now fields eleven electors in Presidential elections, equal to our nine members of the House and two Senators. The Electoral College currently has 538 members.

Congress, from its original 105 members in 1790, increased the number of seats in the House after every census. The United States having grown significantly throughout the nineteenth century, both geographically and in population, in 1911 Congress raised the number of representative from 391 to 435. In 1929 Congress passed the Permanent Apportionment Act, which sealed the number of House seats at 435.

From that point until now, after every census, seats in the House are reapportioned according to population. States that lose population lose House seats; states that gain population gain House seats. So even though the population of the United States increases, the number of House members does not.

As population goes up, each member of the House represents more and more people, now a national average of about 730,000. But every state, no matter the population, still gets at least one House member. Currently there are six states with one House member and fifteen states with between two and five members each. And regardless of population and number of Representatives in the House, each of those twenty-one states has two members of the Senate.

By 2050, the reshuffling of population in the United States will have dramatic effects on the House, Senate, and Electoral College. As people move from rural states, seventy percent of the population will be living in the urban megalopolises of fifteen states, House membership will reflect that change. The fifteen states with the greatest population will pick up House seats from states losing population.

That shift in House members will be reflected in the number of electoral votes allocated to each state. If House membership follows population trends, then the fifteen most populous states could conceivably control seventy percent of (or 305) House seats.

Looking to the Electoral College, the total electoral vote controlled by those fifteen states would be 335, considerably more than the 267 majority required to elect a President.

Since the Democratic Party currently enjoys a significant lead in urban voters, the population shift could benefit that party enormously. The population shift might also, perhaps, end the anomaly the country has experienced twice in this century, when the Electoral College vote has been out of sync with the popular vote.

However, the easiest solution to he problems with the Electoral College would be simply to get rid of it and elect the President by popular vote, which would certainly produce a more democratic outcome.

The most difficult and intractable problem with the population shift will come with the makeup of the Senate. The founders’ configuration of the Senate in the Constitution was a sop to the smaller, less populated states, a way to provide some equality.

Currently the Senate dramatically under-represents the most populous states by a ratio of about 70 to 1. 51 percent of the population lives in 10 states but claim only 20 percent of US Senators.

With the shift in population, less than a third of the members of the Senate will come from the 15 states with 70 percent of the population, whereas the 35 least populous states will send over two-thirds of the Senators.

Many states, including Oregon and Washington, already have a gaping east/west or urban/rural divide. Imagine what will happen in the United States Senate when 30 percent of the population, the least formally educated, the most conservative/reactionary, the most religious, controls 70 of 100 Senators.

Already, the 20 Senators from the most populous states—California, Texas, Florida, New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Georgia, North Carolina, and Michigan—have no more voting power in the Senate than those from the ten least-populous states— Wyoming, Vermont, Alaska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Delaware, Montana, Rhode Island, Maine, and New Hampshire.

When 30 percent of the population controls 70 percent of the seats in the US Senate, the United States will have government by minority, To call it democratic would be a travesty. Clearly, something must be done if what now only passes for democracy is to be rescued.

Like the Electoral College, the Senate has outlived its usefulness and should be abolished. Neither institution is going to go quietly, but go they must. The small states will not give up their advantage willingly, but if the country is to have a semblance of democracy after 2050, we may need a unicameral legislature, with refinements. Certainly we cannot have the power relationships between the states that characterized our first government under the Articles of Confederation.

Gary Murrell is Professor Emeritus of History at Grays Harbor College and is a resident of Grays Harbor County where he writes and tends his garden.


In the debates over the causes of wage stagnation, the…