Even though Democrats retained the Senate—and expanded their majority—in 2022, the results nonetheless marked the continuation of an unwelcome trend: Our new data shows that Senate Republicans last won more votes or represented more Americans than Democrats in 1998, but the GOP has controlled the upper chamber fully half the time since then nonetheless.
The graph at the top of this post visualizes this phenomenon, illustrating just how glaring this disparity is. It also underscores a deep problem for American democracy that's further exacerbated by the Electoral College and gerrymandering in the House, both of which likewise enable one of our two parties to win power despite getting fewer votes nationwide than the other.
Together, these three institutions that form two of the branches of our federal government are set up to regularly allow minority rule—and to allow a minority to further entrench itself in power. Rectifying this imbalance will require creative thinking and determined effort on the part of Democrats, since it's Republicans who have benefited from the current state of affairs in recent decades and bitterly oppose any reform.
Ever since 2000, Republicans have repeatedly won control of the Senate despite losing the popular vote; at the same time, they've also represented states with a minority of the U.S. population. This was the case from 2000 through 2006 and again from 2014 through 2020, covering six of the last 12 federal elections. (To determine the Senate popular vote in a given year, we combined the most recent results for all 100 seats; you can see our data below and find a detailed accounting of our methodology here.)
That asymmetry has only grown more extreme. As illustrated by the graph below, the 51 members of the Democratic caucus today represent 58% of the country's population compared to only 42% for the chamber’s 49 Republicans; that's an increase from two years ago, when the population gap was already a considerable 57-43. That means Democrats continue to have tens of millions more constituents while controlling just two more seats, and they've likewise won millions more votes than Republicans across the three most recent election cycles that have elected the current members of the Senate.
Republican minority rule in the Senate just this century alone has already had far-reaching consequences, particularly through its impact on the judiciary. Five of the six conservative justices on the Supreme Court—all of them except for Clarence Thomas—were confirmed by Senates where the GOP majority was elected with less popular support than Democrats. Three of those justices were even appointed by a president who himself had lost the popular vote.
Those right-wing hardliners installed via minority rule have used their control over the Supreme Court to restrict abortion rights by overturning Roe v. Wade last year, attack voting rights, and preserve Republican gerrymanders while striking down progressive policies and limiting Democratic presidents' power to address climate change. In Congress, this same minority has also paved the way for massive tax cuts for the rich under both Donald Trump and George W. Bush that have facilitated an explosion in economic inequality.
The Senate's malapportionment and bias toward rural white voters who favor the GOP in disproportionate numbers has become an institutional threat to democracy, just as much as if not more so than the Electoral College. And it could get worse.
Under the map of Senate seats up in 2024, Democrats and the three independents who caucus with them are defending 23 seats compared to just 11 for Republicans. Given the increasingly ironclad tendency of voters to punch a straight ticket, 2024 could once again see Republicans capture the Senate even if Democrats win more votes—and even if Biden simultaneously wins another term.
Republicans could therefore win a 51-seat majority by flipping just the two reddest states held by Democrats, West Virginia and Montana, yet still represent only 42% of the country. Put another way, Senate Democrats need to roll up decisive wins in multiple consecutive elections just to have a shot at a bare majority. But with the nation's population increasingly concentrated in just a handful of large states that control a small fraction of the Senate, the chances for majority rule could grow still worse in the coming years.
And this barrier doesn’t even address the Senate filibuster, an accident of history that has chiefly been used to block civil rights laws and now asymmetrically benefits the GOP. Republicans have just two overriding goals: enacting tax cuts for the rich and appointing conservative judges to implement the rest of their agenda. Both of these aims can be advanced by simple majority votes while many Democratic priorities, such as safeguarding voting rights, protecting abortion access, and reforming democracy, require supermajorities.
Trotting out the insidiously misinformed catchphrase "we’re a republic, not a democracy," Republicans like to claim that the framers of the Constitution abhorred democracy and that institutional minority rule is a sacrosanct part of our constitutional order. These arguments could not be more wrong. While the framers disapproved of direct democracy, they repeatedly made clear that they sought to create a system of representative democracy where the majority rules with limits, not where the minority rules—in other words, a democratic republic.
The Senate's structure did not come about as a reflection of some high-minded ideal but rather, as school children learn, was a compromise between self-interested delegates from small states seeking to protect their power and delegates from larger states who favored equal representation based on population. Yet even when the Senate was originally established, the largest state only had 13 times as many people as the smallest state. That difference has ballooned over the ensuing centuries, with California now at 69 times the size of Wyoming.
There does exist one key tool available that could help rebalance the Senate playing field by reducing its bias toward rural white Republicans: admitting new states. Congress can end the disenfranchisement of four million mostly Black and Latino citizens in Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico, both of which voted for statehood in non-binding referendums in recent years. And doing so could be achieved with just a simple majority vote—if Democrats agree to curtail the filibuster.
However, thanks to a few recalcitrant Democratic senators, such legislation did not come to pass following the 2020 elections even though Democrats held both Congress and the White House. In 2021, West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin said he would oppose D.C. statehood unless it was passed with the two-thirds majority necessary to amend the Constitution, effectively killing it since every Republican was opposed. And in 2022, Manchin and Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema sided with every Republican to block a comprehensive voting rights bill, demonstrating their enduring hostility to filibuster reform even in the name of bolstering democracy.
While House Democrats did pass a bill that would confer statehood on D.C. in 2021, now that Republicans have retaken the chamber, that's foreclosed the possibility of the measure passing again for at least the next two years. But the push for statehood isn't going away. Last month, Senate Democrats reintroduced the bill for D.C. statehood, and since John Fetterman flipped Pennsylvania last fall, it's possible that 49 Democrats would be willing to curtail the filibuster to pass it. That would still leave Democrats one vote short but if they can once again hold the Senate, they might finally get there if a supporter of filibuster reform like Rep. Ruben Gallego replaces Sinema.
But even if Democrats eventually admit D.C. and Puerto Rico as new states, that would only modestly reduce the Senate's considerable biases toward Republicans. Over the long term, more far-reaching measures may be needed. The British, for instance, stripped the power to block bills from their upper chamber, the House of Lords, over a century ago. Many other European democracies, meanwhile, have either a unicameral parliament or similarly weak upper chamber. Relying on a single chamber is possible even in America, too: Nebraska eliminated its state House and adopted a unicameral legislature in 1934.
Of course, proposals like these would require either amending the constitution—which the GOP would of course oppose—or outright breaking with the constitutional order, much as the framers did when ditching the Articles of Confederation in favor of the Constitution. Admitting new states is therefore the most realistic option for preventing the Senate from becoming even more entrenched as a bastion of Republican minority rule, and one Democrats must continue to pursue despite the obstacles they face.