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Overrepresentation of small states/provinces, and the USA Today effect

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]

P.S. See here and here for a partisan take on this issue.


  1. Sam Cook says:

    Boris commented:

    What about area? There are fixed costs to provide any government services over a given land area (especially public goods like defense). So it just costs a lot of money to protect Alaska and Wyoming, though very few people live there. Therefore, the per-person benefit of Wyoming rises not because it is over-represented (though that may be), but only because Wyoming is a big state.

    Of course, there is a slight positive correlation between area and population.

  2. JB says:

    Small states are represented equally in the Senate to prevent large states from pushing through legislation which harms them. If you want to see the disastrous results of large regions being allowed to dominate decision-making, look at Canada – the western provinces have virtually no power, and their interests are consistently ignored (or attacked) in the federal government.

  3. Andrew says:

    The trouble is, overrepresentation of rural areas creates policy that is biased against urban areas. For example, farm subsidies eat up a large percentage of the US budget and a huge percentage of the EU budget, even though they are of little benefit to urban residents (they mostly serve to protect the domestic farming industry at the expense of foreign competition). That money could be spent on much more beneficial things like infrastructure in urban areas, which is underfunded everywhere. If senators were apportioned according to population, the Senate wouldn't be packed full of small-state senators who waste money on farm subsidies.

  4. Andrew says:

    By the way, the above is a different "Andrew." Not that I disagree with the above comment, but if you comment with the name "Andrew," please include a last name also, so people won't think you're me! Thanks.

    – Andrew Gelman

  5. Bill says:

    This article has got me thinking that I ought to move to a smaller state – more services or income per capita, perhaps.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Listen to Sam Cook's reply above. The Senate was set up the way it is for a reason.

    Federal funding should not be used for much of what it is. Local government should be taking care of a lot – urban infrastructure and farm subsidies alike.

    Let's try to think outside of our own self-appointed boxes, guys. Small farmers would suffer from lack of farm subsidies in the same way that us more urban folks feel we suffer from lack of infrastructure.

    It's not a perfect system, but it was set up the ways that it is for good reasons. And I think there are a lot graver issues we should be taking up with our federal government than simply Congressional representation.

  7. James says:

    There's another plausible interpretation of the origin and purpose of this phenomenon — that this is not just a compromise to get ascent to the original federal system, but was deliberately designed to give votes not just to people but to states. Why would anyone want to do this? It makes no sense (or very little sense) if we think of a state only as either all of its people, or the land within its boundaries, or both. But if we think a state, through its institutions, legislature, laws, citizen groups, etc. may embody and exemplify a particular philosophy or trend in law and governance, (allowing it to act, within the larger nation, as a "laboratory of democracy" , to use Justice Brandeis's phrase), perhaps there is some sense to it. We may then want to protect the ability of that state, in the case when its population is small, to resist pressure at the federal level to abandon distinctive aspects of its philosophy or practice of law and governance to make them align better to those of its neighbors. This helps ensure that laboratory experiments would not be prematurely nipped in the bud by powerful, large-state advocates of the status quo who could go seeking out and intimidating troublemakers from the legislatures of the small states.

    Of course this analysis ignores countervailing concerns, like the one mentioned in this discussion, that small states may then be able to use the federal government parasitically, by applying their disproportionate weight to extract subsidies, but it seems to me that that is largely a separate question that can be separately analyzed before balancing the two concerns.

  8. jumps bond says:

    that is true.sometimes,the rural areas tend to overpresent their ideas which might result in a conflict somehow with the urban region

  9. me2 says:

    check out Rodden's (Stanford) recent work on this.

  10. kyle gorman says:

    arguably, farm subsidies do tremendous harm to urban populations, in the form of promoting extremely cheap high-fat, high-cholestrol, high-sugar foods derived from cheap corn and soybeans. there is a tremendous amount of work demonstrating the higher rate of diabetes and obesity in urban regions in the US.