It has become a widespread belief in some circles that our smaller-population states are pampered with outsized representation in the Senate (and, to a lesser extent, the Electoral College and the House of Representatives – though in actuality the best and least represented states in the House both have one rep). While this is true, without these mechanisms these states would be outright ignored. Even in the current system, the larger states arguably have undue influence. Even when a state like Montana or New Mexico is up for grabs, presidential candidates aren’t going to spend a whole lot of time there. Even though California and Texas are not up for grabs, Republicans will spend some time in the former and Republicans in the latter for fundraising reasons alone.

Of course, the complaints are not without merit. If you look at donor and beneficiary states, you see not only the red/blue distinction that many comment on, but an urban/rural distinction as well (the major exception being the rust belt). It’s a fair point. Also worth noting, however, is that in some cases it just costs more on a per-capita basis to service a large and sparse state than a primarily urban one. So if Wyoming is getting its mail, and New York is getting its mail, but on a per-tax-dollar basis the former costs a lot more than the latter, they’re not exactly getting a freebie. As Americans, they’re getting the same services as their urban counterparts because they, like their urban counterparts, are Americans and thus due the same services. The same goes for roads. It was Washington DC that drew the map for Montana. Should Washington then complain that it costs so much to service Montana’s roads in comparison to Rhode Island’s?

It also overlooks the fact that these states are often getting this money in return for a service. Surely, we wouldn’t consider a NASA engineer* to be the moral equivalent of someone getting federal food stamps, would we? But when people talk about beneficiary and donor states, they often fail to make these distinctions. Further, it’s advantageous not just to North Dakota’s economy, but also the United States government when we put nuclear silos there rather than upstate New York because it’s cheaper. The same goes for Nevada* and Utah accepting nuclear waste, because it’s safer (except for Nevada and Utah, that is). And military bases in Kansas instead of California. It wouldn’t save the government any money to put these in any of the donor states. It’s not unlike saying that my car mechanic is a “beneficiary” because I pay him for goods and services and he doesn’t pay me (directly) for any.

Of course, you can even put these aside and you’ll probably still also find a disparity. Partially due to per-capita income, but also because rural states do exploit the senate in order to get earmarks and the like. I am not wholly unsympathetic to the undemocratic nature of it.

But the big states gain from the fact that they have larger congressional delegations. And so they have natural alliances that they can then use to get outsized influence. It’s easier for eleven reps in Chicago to team up than the sole representatives from Wyoming, Montana, and the Dakotas to team up with the two reps in Idaho, the three in Utah and Nebraska even if they represent roughly the same population. Further, even under the current system, the big states get almost all of the presidents.

The last 13 Presidents have come from Illinois*, Texas, Arkansas, Texas, California, Georgia, Michigan, California, Texas, Massachusetts. Kansas, Missouri, New York. Clinton is exceptional and Eisenhower’s base was the mighty US Army rather than sparsely-populated Kansas. All the others come from one of the 20 most-populous states.

So too do most defeated Presidential nominees. Since FDR beat Wendell Wilkie the losers have come from: Arizona, Massachusetts, Tennessee, Kansas, Texas, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Georgia, Michigan, South Dakota, Minnesota, Arizona, California, Illinois, New York.

Note the paucity of small-state nominees. Arizona wasn’t a major state when Goldwater ran while Bob Dole (Kansas), Mondale (Minnesota), McGovern (South Dakota) and Humphrey (Minnesota) were each Washington figures. If it’s tough to win the Presidency from the Senate it’s even harder to do so as a former governor of a small state.

Clinton, again, is the only ex-governor to reach the White House from one of the 30 least-populous states. Those states account for roughly 25% of the population and, obviously, 60% of governors and yet they produce very few successful candidates.

There are some good reasons for that: what works in a small state may not scale to national level and, just as importantly, the governor of a small state lacks names recognition in major media markets and, rather importantly, in major media newsrooms. Sure, you might have done a good job in your tiny, empty state thousands of miles from Washington but that means nothing on the national stage and it certainly doesn’t earn you the right to be taken seriously by sagacious pundits and handicappers.

All of this is more than compensated for by Senate representation, of course, and the electoral college benefit the senate seats give the small states (Al Gore would have won in 2000 is the EC counts had been determines solely by House representation).

Now (leaving aside for the moment the Chicago vs UT-ID-MT-WY-ND-SD-NE equation), in a perfectly democratic system, the response would be “screw the small states because they’re such a pitiful minority. If you want more representation, move!” But while we live in a democracy, we do not live under one whose primary goal is to represent the view of a majority of the people to the exclusion of everyone else. The states were designed to mean something. Maybe you consider them anachronistic, and in a sense maybe they are. But while you can argue “the founders never accounted for the kind of population differential you see between California and Wyoming”, it’s also the case that the initial compromise did intend for their to be disparities.

Of course, I am not an unbiased observer in this, seeing as how I live in a small state with outsized senate representation. But the same “move!” argument made above can be made here. If it’s that important to you, you’re more than free to join me in Arapaho. If you are disinclined to because of the lack of job opportunities or city amenities, than just consider it a bone thrown our way: We get maintained roads and mail service, too.

* – Florida (NASA), Texas (NASA), and Nevada (nuclear waste) are actually donor states. You get the point, though.


Category: Statehouse

About the Author

Will Truman (trumwill) is a southern transplant in the mountain east with an IT background who bides his time taking care of their daughter while his wife brings home the bacon. You will probably be relieved to know that he does not generally refer to himself in the third-person except when he's writing short bios on his web page.

4 Responses to Small-Staters Are Americans, Too

  1. Peter says:

    The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which governs mass transit in the New York region, has an unusual way to avoid giving disproportionate influence to the smaller counties in its service area. Each county appoints a member to the board of directors, and the governor and mayor appoint others, for a total of 17 board members. What makes it unusual is that only 14 votes can be cast. The four members from the smallest counties (Rockland, Orange, Putnam and Dutchess) have only one collective vote, which can be cast only if all four are in unanimous agreement. These members are somewhat derisively known as the “Quarter Pounders.”

  2. Brandon Berg says:

    So if Wyoming is getting its mail, and New York is getting its mail, but on a per-tax-dollar basis the former costs a lot more than the latter, they’re not exactly getting a freebie.

    I disagree. People who live in rural areas have made a choice to live in a place where it’s relatively expensive to deliver mail. When someone else picks up the extra costs of that choice, that’s a subsidy.

    I don’t have any objection to people choosing to live that way, but they should have to pay the extra costs associated with their lifestyle choices instead of passing the bill onto others who make different choices.

  3. trumwill says:

    Yeah, I wouldn’t expect a libertarian to agree with that statement. But most people have bought into the notion that basic infrastructure like roads, power, and communication are a public good above and beyond a freebie. Mail to and roads through rural states benefit are things that benefit non-residents as well.

    Generally speaking, we do not expect the roads, the mail system, and so on to pay for themselves. Though I know libertarians wish they did. And if it got to the point where they did, I would re-evaluate cross-state subsidies in this regard.

    The main target of a lot of these comments are urban liberals who equate transportation maintenance and mail service in rural areas with food stamps while of course considering them public utilities everywhere else.

  4. trumwill says:

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that I think subsidies for things that everyone gets are substantively different than subsidies for things that primarily apply to rural states (like ag subsidies). You can support both or oppose both, and they’re not entirely dissimilar, but I still think the distinction is important and overlooked in those donor/beneficiary maps and the lik

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