How Republicans Gerrymandered the Senate

One of the most important political stories of the last decade is how the Republicans gained power in both state legislatures and the House of Representatives by gerrymandering districts. But did you know that in the late 19th century, they also gerrymandered the Senate? That is the fascinating story Ian Millhiser recently told.

Two days before the lame-duck President James Buchanan left office, he signed legislation carving off part of Utah Territory, which stretched across most of modern-day Nevada, about a third of Colorado and some of Wyoming, to form part of what we now know as Nevada. Congress would soon pass two more bills expanding Nevada at Utah’s expense.

This largely forgotten act of line-drawing enabled one of the most consequential gerrymanders in American history. Because the virtually unpopulated Nevada became its own territory, Republicans could admit it as a state just four years later. That gave the Party of Lincoln two extra seats in the Senate — helping prevent Democrats from simultaneously controlling the White House and both houses of Congress until 1893.

Have you ever wondered why there are two Dakotas? Same story.

[T]he reason why there are two Dakotas — despite the fact that both states are so underpopulated that they each only rate a single member of the House of Representatives to this day — is because Republicans won the 1888 election and decided to celebrate by giving themselves four senators instead of just two.

At the time, “Congress typically would not consider a territory’s petition for full statehood until that territory reached a certain population threshold — ‘the norm for eligibility was sufficient population to reach the current quota for a House seat.’” Neither Nevada nor either of the Dakotas met that threshold. And yet Republicans made them states in a political power move. I suppose there is some comfort to be found in the fact that norm-breaking is not necessarily a new political phenomenon.

Millhiser tells that story because, based on how Senate representation was defined by our founders, this country is approaching a breaking point.

By 2040, according to a University of Virginia analysis of Census population projections, about half of the country will live in just eight states — which means 16 senators for one half of America and 84 for the other half.

To make things worse, that imbalance is the only provision in the Constitution that cannot be amended. Article I, Section 3 states that “the Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each state.” Article V, which lays out the process for constitutional amendments, states that “no State, without its Consent, shall be deprived of its equal Suffrage in the Senate.” Given that no state will ever consent to giving up its representation in the Senate, we’re stuck with the system.

Millhiser suggests a couple of options. The first is that Democrats should grant statehood to D.C. as soon as they gain the presidency and majorities in both houses of Congress. The second involves telling another fascinating story from our history about how the state of West Virginia was formed.

In 1861, shortly after the Civil War began, 35 Virginia counties rebelled against the rebellion. The unionist counties met in Wheeling, declared itself to be the lawful government of Virginia, and eventually were admitted back into the Union as the state of West Virginia.

Admitting it is a radical idea, Millhiser suggests that Democrats should follow suit and consider making several states out of California and New York. Recognizing that those states might object, he writes:

The legislation creating ten Californias or eight New Yorks, moreover, could potentially be paired with an interstate compact that places at least some of the state government’s core functions in a unified California or unified New York government.

That strikes me as too much of a long shot to be realistic. But who knows?

At any rate, I absolutely appreciate the history lesson. Perhaps knowing what has been done in the past will stir up the creative juices about what is possible in the present and future.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.