An article in the Monday New York Times raised the question of the inequality of representation in the U.S. Senate, in part by contrasting Rutland County (supposedly “spiffy” and flush with stimulus dollars) with neighboring Washington County, N.Y. (supposedly “scruffy” and starved of federal dollars).
The article showed that the Constitutional structure of two senators per state results in practice to huge imbalances in representation — a Vermont resident is one of 650,000 with two senators; a New York resident is one of 19 million with the same number of senators. Sixty-two senators represent one fourth of the U.S. population; six senators represent another fourth in its entirety. This has a direct impact on lobbying for federal money.
Vermont’s senators have been good at directing money to their home state. From health centers to conservation, law enforcement and pollution remediation, federal dollars have funded wholly or in part dozens of important projects and efforts in our state, out of proportion to our population.
But the Times article made a broader point, about how the Senate structure preserves an equal, or some would say, outsized voice for smaller, more rural states. In this group Vermont stands alone as liberal-leaning among Wyoming, Alaska, Nebraska and the Dakotas.
Experts say that this creates a drag on change, as a block of senators — or, using the filibuster, just one senator — can, and have, put a stop to almost any kind of legislation that may be overwhelmingly supported by the majority of voters. Whether this system deserves to survive is a question that has roots reaching back to the foundation of our country, and threads that run through every era, boiling down to the balance of power between the states and the federal government.
In its modern incarnation, this balance has become a pivot between the needs of urban residents and rural residents. As the United States population becomes more concentrated in urban areas, the apportionment of two senators per state seems to exacerbate the inequality of representation.
The Times article gave the example of Fresno, Calif., population roughly 600,000, compared to the state of Wyoming, which has a roughly equivalent population. The problems the city and the state are trying to solve are incredibly different. But the fact that Fresno is one city in the largest state in the union puts it at a decided disadvantage when it comes to the Senate — Wyoming has two senators devoted entirely to its needs, while Fresno has a small share of two senators that are spead over 38 million people.
This also plays out in political battles like gun control. Cities like Chicago, Fresno and Detroit may need different legal tools to fight gun-related crime than a rural state like Wyoming or Vermont. But the smaller states can dominate on these issues, simply by being obstinate.
This harkens back to the court-ordered reapportionment struggle in Vermont, which happened now nearly 50 years ago, and radically shifted the balance of power in the Vermont House and Senate.
The way the Legislature once was organized was one town, one representative, while each county had one senator, with the remaining 16 apportioned by population. That meant that in 1963, tiny Stratton, population 38, had a voice in the House equal to Burlington, population 35,531. By the same measure, a senator from Chittenden County represented 14,885 residents while one from Grand Isle spoke for just 2,927. This had an impact similar to the one described at the federal level — small towns could wield undue influence at the state level, and often did, sometimes to the detriment of the state as a whole.
Vermont’s reapportionment was an emotional one, but in the end many of the state’s 246 representatives voted themselves out of a job, because it was the right thing to do. This, along with demographic shifts, paved the way for the rapid modernization of Vermont’s government in the later 1960s and into the 1970s. The state has benefitted greatly from this change — the United States might as well.
However, Vermont’s Legislature remains largely collegial, and the state’s small size contributes to a feeling of community and a shared future that appears to have faded from the U.S. House and Senate. This has helped Vermont’s small towns retain a voice in a system that is increasingly dominated by the interests of Chittenden County, the urban population center of this state.
While the cities and towns of Chittenden County have staked out a role in Vermont as a progressive leader in ideals of small urban communities, the rest of Vermont still embodies the tenets that we hold most true about our state — rural, frugal, hardworking and tolerant. That balance between the different faces of modern Vermont has developed in part due to the democratization of the reapportionment 50 years ago, but also because the state has retained a shared sense of identity and community.
That might be a good lesson for the country as a whole.
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