Everybody Hates Wyoming

The State of Wyoming is something of an odd case. In terms of geographic size, it’s a middling state, but in terms of population it is the smallest. This frequently makes it a case-and-point in a number of discussions. Why shouldn’t DC be a state when it has more people than Wyoming? The senate is unfair, look at Wyoming! The electoral college is unfair, look at Wyoming! The House is unfair, look at Wyoming!

In that last case, some people have suggested that the entire US House be reconstructed due to Wyoming’s overrepresentation. Since Wyoming is the universal stand-in for “small population state (SPS),” people often assume that the House, like the Senate, favors small states. Except it actually doesn’t (and Wyoming isn’t even the most overrepresented state in the House, that honor belongs to the rednecks in Rhode Island). The most underrepresented House state is… Montana. Too big for a single House seat, but too small for a second. Followed by Delaware, South Dakota, and Idaho.

The case for Wyoming’s benefit in the case of the electoral college is on firmer ground. A vote in Wyoming counts more than a vote in California. And unlike the House, EV representation (because it includes evenly-distributed Senate seats) does favor smaller states*. But because Wyoming is a universal stand-in for SPS, people assume that the Republican advantage in the Electoral College comes from states like Wyoming. This, however, depends on what you count as a small state. In terms of EC representation, Wyoming is followed by DC, Vermont, North Dakota, Alaska, and Rhode Island. A relatively even distribution. Go beyond that and you’ve got Delaware, Hawaii, Montana, Maine, and New Hampshire. The Republican advantage in the EC isn’t due to those hick states because they are matched at least somewhat by those hamlet states, but rather because the GOP owns the middle-sized states while the Democrats own most of the larger population states (Texas and Florida, of course, being counter-examples).

Why is this distinction important? Because I believe it goes towards understanding that complaints about Wyoming are, to some extent, complaints about rural America. Wyoming doesn’t have a single city with over 75k and only three with over 30k. It is among the nations most reddest states, to boot. Wyoming’s representation in the Electoral College outsizes its representation from .17% of the nation’s population to a little over half a percent. Even if Wyoming were a swing state, it would never be a focal point of politics. Montana actually has the potential to be a swing state, but sees comparatively little action because its outsized proportion of the EC vote brings it to… a little over half a percent.

But despite these things, Wyoming keeps coming up. Vermont almost never does. Because an additional 60k makes all the difference? Or because Wyoming is a convenient target? Because Wyoming represents something greater, and something for which much greater disdain is felt, than a merely sparsely populated state in the Mountain West. I think it has as much to do with the sense that Wyomingans (and their ilk) are getting away with something. And that the sorts of people that live in red-beneficiary states like Wyoming are the not the people that should get away with something.

Now, living in a comparatively rural state in the Mountain West, the last thing I personally feel is a sense of outsized importance. Yes, we get a greater portion of the Electoral College than our population would have it. Yes, we even get two Senate seats. But you know what we lack? Media markets. We lack for national attention. But for the representation we have, our problems and issues would go completely ignored. I’ve lived in larger states. And the thought of my state – at the time – being completely ignored never entered my mind.

I do recognize that the combination of a Senate and the filibuster does help out the SPS significantly. These are grounds for real grievance. However, the fact that states like Wyoming are targeted for having .4% more of the nation’s vote than they should have, that they are scapegoated as ungrateful beneficiary states, suggests to me that this is as much about “us versus them” (in part because they – we – vote the wrong way) than about fundamental fairness. Not that people are getting away with something, but that the wrong people are.

* – I do recognize that the bigger argument against the Electoral College is the swing/safe state distinction. I agree with that argument and it’s because of that argument that I actually do moderately support a switch away from the Electoral College.

Will Truman

Will Truman is the Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. He is also on Twitter.


  1. Who scapegoats Wyoming??? Have i been missing out on blaming Wyoming?

    I live in a classic SPS state; Alaska. We have had an outsize influence in getting Fed money for years. That has partially been due to having a long serving Senator who was good at getting money. While we don’t have any major media markets, most states don’t. Does Vermont get in the news much even though they are near the Boston tv market? I dare say few people know the extent of flooding they have been through over the last few weeks.

    • Most states have may not have a Houston or a Los Angeles, but they have something.

      When I say small states that need the extra governmental clout because they lack other clout, I would include Vermont in there as well. It’s not just a Republican SPS thing. While Vermont and Rhode Island might have a slight leg-up by being located near big cities, it’s still the same basic problem.

      • WillT, as you recall, Dick Cheney was Wyoming’s lone congressman, 1978-1989. 😉

        • And he re-established Wyoming residency in 2000, to avoid some thorny constitutional issues about Texas’s electoral votes.

          • I had not heard about him switching his residency, but I suspect it had to do with the law that a President and Vice-President can’t be from the same state.

          • More precisely, an elector cannot cast his vote for both a presidential and a vice-presidential candidate from his home state. So a Texas elector could have voted for Bush but not Cheney (or vice versa).

  2. Most people I know who target the over-representation issue for the EV, House and Senate do so on the grounds that rural interests are heavily privileged over urban in national and state politics. In the end, that favors Republicans today on balance, but it wasn’t always that way and it may not always remain that way, but I’m not sure if there’s a good way to repair it within the system.

    • As I said, though, there is no real overrepresentation in the House. For every Wyoming, you have a Montana. The small states populate both extremes.

      For the Senate and Electoral College, the “small rural states” aren’t the issue. The real difference is the middle (which is very red) and high-population states. Five of the top ten are blue, three are purple and two are red. If you’re looking at the top third, it’s eight blue, five purple, and four red. The bottom third is nearly evenly divided (depending on what counts as “purple”). the middle third has five red, five blue, and two purple.

      So really, it’s middle-versus-top much more than top-versus-bottom.

      • As states, of course not.
        But within states, most have set their House Districts to over-represent their rural areas within their own caucuses by aligning suburbs with rural areas and cramming city centers into a single district or two, so the House is still over-represented with rural districts at the expense of cities, this happens in a lot of Red and Blue states alike. So on balance, rural areas are still over represented in the House.
        It’s only a Red vs. Blue thing on a secondary level, in that those rural areas tend to vote Republican today.

        • Ahh, okay. The misunderstanding was my fault. Yeah, when you combine (a) Republican influence of state legislatures are the most opportune times and (b) efforts to create and increase the number of minority districts, you are more often going to get suburban/rural districts.

          • (b) efforts to create and increase the number of minority districts are to assure minority representation in the legislature. Were we to draw demographically neutral district maps, few minorities would get elected if people vote by race, which they often do. Joe Black gets only 12% of the vote.

            Ah, the tangled webs we weave
            When we practice to Improve the System.

          • Someone who comes up with race-neutral, self-organizing ways to increase minority representation (e.g. cumulative voting) gets smeared as a “quota queen”.

  3. I wonder how much of our perception of the importance of states is not population, but population density? I agree that people assume VT is more important than WY, but I wonder how much of that has to do with the way they’re all squished together.

    Also, I expect to a certain extent Wyoming gets some due since people like going there; I suspect that in these conversations people forget that North Dakota is there altogether.

    • What is this North Dakota you speak of????

      There is something to the squished vs. wide open space thing. Certainly Conservatives often show the map of red states showing all the space they take up suggesting that the greater spaces suggest more of America is on their side.

  4. What is this North Dakota you speak of????

    Ah, someone got the memo

    (I had seen this I think on the Daily Show within the last few years, but had no idea it had been around so long)

  5. Since I believe this post was at least partially inspired by me, let me just say that the selection of Wyoming usually has a lot more to do with the fact that is’ objectively the least-populated state. It’s not nefarious; it’s just easy (or lazy, if you prefer).

    • Honestly, due to the Pennsylvania thing, it’s something I am just seeing everywhere.

      I recognize that Wyoming is the most obvious candidate due to its low population. I can’t help but think, though, if Wyoming had 70,000 more people and Vermont were the smallest state, blue types would see the “small states get a disproportionate amount of the vote” argument for the weak argument that it is. Right now it’s honestly something that’s just too easy to tack on because the biggest state is blue and the smallest is red and it dovetails with the perception that all (or almost all) smallpop states are red.

      • Possibly. I oppose anti-majoritarianism pretty much across the board, but I’m willing to believe I am not your standard interlocutor on this issue.

  6. On What we Ought To Do:
    Split California into two states, and combine together the Dakotas.

    • Two senate seats or no, California benefits from being one large state. As does Texas (think textbooks). Which goes towards why I think the notion of major state underrepresentation is beside the point and attempts to correct it are actually attempts to take away some of the few counterweights the other states have.

      • This is where the logic of the entire discussion comes apart for me. Why do small states get “counterweights”? I realize this is an artifact of our insane decision to pretend we were vesting a great deal of power in states as political entities, but it makes precisely zero sense. It is, at root, a political decision that requires us to believe that a citizen of Vermont is fundamentally not the same thing as a citizen of Texas with respect to the national government. It would be unconstitutional on almost any other issue.

        • Part of it is the federal republic thing. We’re a union of not only 300,000 people, but also of 50 states. Vermont is a different place than Mississippi and Montana from Florida. And Florida from Mississippi, for that matter. I’m rather uncomfortable with a nation of our size and population being run as a single entity. So one nation breaks down into 51 parts. It’s not that uncommon of an arrangement.

          • This is only vaguely a description of what the United States is actually like. And, again, it presumes that, with respect to the national government as it currently exists, a citizen of Vermont is more important than a citizen of Texas. That’s not only insane, it’s disgusting.

          • This is only vaguely a description of what the United States is actually like.

            The United States has (at least) 51 political units within it. This is not contestable, not accidental, and not unusual.

            And, again, it presumes that, with respect to the national government as it currently exists, a citizen of Vermont is more important than a citizen of Texas.

            Not really. It assumes that the state of Vermont is not completely irrelevant standing next to the state of New York merely because it has fewer people (and ditto New Mexico and Texas). Absent some counterweight, it’s not just that Texas would be 13x more important than New Mexico. It’s that New Mexico would not have any importance at all.

            Should a state become irrelevant merely for lack of people? I mean, entirely irrelevant? Should Texas and the other big boys have their representatives vote everything for themselves simply because they’ve got the numbers?

            If the State of Utah is 60% Mormon, and you live in a majoritarian state and Mormons vote in lockstep, the Mormons don’t get their way 60% of the time. They get it 100% of the time.

            The State of California and the State of Texas have strength in numbers. Even if they are individually less important, they are part of something very important, which has its own value. Having been a resident of a big state, and having been a resident of a small state, I can tell you without question that my sense of importance is actually higher in the former, Senate or no, diminished presidential vote or no (really, on the presidential level, the key distinction is swing-safe anyway).

          • Why do I care whether Vermont is “relevant”? What does that even mean? Why does Vermont get some special say in who becomes president by virtue of just being Vermont? What difference does it make?

            It has virtually no correspondence to how policy is conducting at the national level anyway. We don’t make state-by-state national policy (though we do sometimes let states implement national policy in different ways). The federal tax code isn’t different in Vermont vs. Texas. The president is equally the president of all fifty states. I can’t even fathom the actual intellectual argument that attempts to prop up the notion that certain states should get to overrule the majority of the country just by virtue of the fact that they organized their territory a certain way.

          • Also, your argument only appears to work because you insist that we arguing about the states of Texas vs. Vermont, etc. I’m utterly uninterested. I’m arguing about the citizens of the United States. The ones who live in Texas are not more or less important because they live there instead of Vermont. They’re all equal. Their state governments make absolutely no difference when determining how these citizens should be represented by their national government.

          • Why do I care whether Vermont is “relevant”? What does that even mean? Why does Vermont get some special say in who becomes president by virtue of just being Vermont? What difference does it make?

            It may not matter to you. But it matters to the people who live in Vermont. The people who would not get .2% influence in the absence of a Senate, but rather would get 0%. Getting statewide grants would be much more difficult than for the state of New York getting a grant for a portion of its population equal to the size of Vermont. The “strength in numbers” is important not because they get influence in proportion to their numbers, but because the total becomes more than the sum of its people.

            In the end, we are not just Americans. We are citizens of the state that we live in. Living in specific states gives us specific interests and means laws (even “state-neutral” ones) affect us in specific ways. Regardless of ideology.

            We don’t make state-by-state national policy (though we do sometimes let states implement national policy in different ways). The federal tax code isn’t different in Vermont vs. Texas. The president is equally the president of all fifty states.

            The federal tax code isn’t, although the ramifications of tax policy affect different states differently. If income tax is deductible, residents of states without an income tax lose that dediction. States with a low wages and low cost of living avoid paying all the taxes that those of high wages and high cost of living do. Beyond that, different states are given waivers or extra requirements. The federal government threatened to withhold money to Texas (and only Texas) if they did such-and-such with their statewide education spending. And, of course, earmarks.

            There are also a lot of state-specific concerns. Or concerns that disproportionately affect populations of certain states. Majoritarianism would completely ignore these issues, even if they affect large portions of the country geographically speaking, simply because they are in a minority. That’s one of the problems with majoritarianism without limitations.

            by virtue of the fact that they organized their territory a certain way.

            In many cases, they didn’t organize their territory a certain way, but rather their territory was organized a certain way by the federal government. And when they do try to organize themselves a certain way, they often do so to maximize state size rather than minimize it, and are shot down. Why in the world would they do this and trade away the senatorial and electoral votes? A lot of reasons, not least of which is because it’s better to be one large state than five small ones.

            The State of Texas had the option of splitting 5 ways. That’s eight additional electoral votes! They chose not to do so. And smartly so. Because those votes in the senate were less important than the advantages of size. They would have held on to their portions of New Mexico, Colorado, and Wyoming if they could have.

            The Mormons tried to create a huge state of Deseret spanning from San Diego to Wyoming. The federal government wouldn’t have it and what became Utah was a low-population sliver. This wasn’t the Utahn’s choice. They would have gladly traded in the senate seats for greater size.

            Even if Montana and Idaho wanted to combine… they couldn’t. Not without the federal government saying so, and that’s not typically the kind of thing the federal government allows.

            The ones who live in Texas are not more or less important because they live there instead of Vermont.

            Oh, but they would be! Congressional delegations don’t just represent districts. They represent neighboring districts. And when they need votes, they turn to in-state folks first. I’ll vote for the NASA budget increase if you vote for the Supercollider and that will help both of us because there is a lot of commerce between Houston and Dallas. It will be good for the state as a whole. Even in a more limited capacity, getting eight congressmen from the Houston area to bind together is a lot easier than getting eight congresspeople stretching from Idaho to Nebraska, even though they represent roughly the same number of people.

            In a parliamentary government, the people would be equal in name only. The high-population areas would have advantages that outstrip their populations. Even despite the “smallpop state advantage” we have more presidents that come from high population states than their portion of the population.

          • I should add that I turned to the senate because I don’t have much interest in protecting the Electoral College. I think it should go. But not because of Wyoming and Vermont. Rather, because of the swing/nonswing distinction that makes some states important and others forgotten.

            To me, complaining about the “undue influence” Wyoming and Vermont have is like saying “How come David gets a slingshot? Goliath doesn’t have a slingshot. Goliath only has a non-range weapon.”

          • So, to distill things a bit, your basic argument is that democracy is a bad thing because it doesn’t allow extremely tiny minorities (less than 1% of the total population, even) to hijack the political process?

          • Well, no. My argument is that unbridled democracy where a majority always gets its way is not an unmitigated good. Certainly not in a large and diverse patchwork of a nation such as ours.

            The big states (as defined by population) have huge delegations to the US House. The big swing states control the Electoral College. The presidents almost uniformly come from large states. The big states have a lot of weapons in their arsenal, including media markets and better political mobilization capabilities. The Senate and the EC are all the small states have, and in the latter case it’s not as though the major candidates are spending great deals of time in Montana and New Mexico (they do New Hampshire, but for a different reason).

            This isn’t an example of American backwardness. The German Bundesrat and Indian Rajya Sabha give disproportionate weight to the smaller states. It’s very commonly does in large nations, diverse nations, and federal republics generally.

            As it pertains to the EC, in my view the distortion is relatively minimal and only comes up one out of a large number of elections. Is this reason enough to do away with the EC? I’m not sure, but it’s a moot question in my mind because the swing/nonswing almost certainly is.

            As it pertains to the Senate, we could go the route of some other nations and have marginal distinctions between smallpops and large. But really, I get the sense that you would likely find any significant differential to be unacceptable. And more broadly, people complaining about the state-size imbalance in the EC leave me to believe that this is a common viewpoint. So left between a choice of two-per or doing away with the senate, I’ll take the former.

            I do support doing away (or severely limiting) the filibuster, which does make something of a nasty combination with the small states and its representation.

            Basically, I would look for some sort of balance rather than saying “Screw you, Montana. If you want to be relevant, get more than a million people.” We live in a democracy that does not and never has sought to carry the favor of the statistical majority in any and all cases. And we live in a federal republic, a union of not just 300m people, but of 50 states (and a district and some territories).

          • Aren’t you just treating states as somehow magically a group of similar interests that can somehow exercise federal influence and saying that’s different than treating the U.S. as a whole as sharing similar interests?
            A large state like Texas or California or New York has significant slices of it’s population that may not share the same viewpoints as the majority due to geography or urban/rural splits. I’m not sure why one can just say the citizens of Wyoming deserve a full Senate and EC voice when those of Austin have to be a voice among many.
            The one last nit to pick on the EC, is that a system that only has risks of causing a problem in close elections seems extra silly.

  7. I don’t hate Wyoming, but I think some resentment is in order. Look at per capita federal aid to state and local governments (Census 2009 pdf, particularly the table on page ten). Alaska is #1, Wyoming is #2 in per capita aid and by wide margins compared to the US average. Also, look at what states are net contributors or net recipients of federal funds (Federal Taxes Paid vs. Federal Spending Received by State, 1981-2005). According to those tables Wyoming is a net recipient of federal funds from 1994 to 2005. Small states seem to be making out rather well. Probably related, given the filibuster, a relatively small percentage of the US population (less than 12%) gets an outsize negotiating position in the Senate – .17% of the population with 2% of the senate votes for Wyoming versus 11.91% of the population and 2% of the Senate for California, a really outsized negotiating position.

    (One caveat on the financials, the mix of the population has an impact, what percent elderly, what percent in poverty and such. It’d take more attention to tease out how these factors impact the figures. That said, I still think small states are still making out rather well.)

    • Gawd, I hate those freeloaders in Wyoming. Taking in $1.11 for every dollar they put in. We may call it Yellowstone National Park, but it’s really nothing but welfare for that state, isn’t it? Also, those Indian reservations. And the government actually *pays money in lieu of taxes* for the 40% of the state that it owns. Those are just giveaways, too.

      Don’t they realize that THEY OWE US?!

      More seriously, as I said, the filibuster and senate are grounds for legitimate grievance.

      The red-blue map, however, is a whole lot of complicated issues treated demogoguishly as though red staters are ungrateful leaches (who are, logically speaking, required to support any and all government programs lest they be revealed as hypocrites). I wasn’t going to touch on this because I will be writing an entirely separate post on the subject to get it off my chest, but actually this is another example where people pick on Wyoming specifically when Wyoming is actually a comparatively minor offender and where the government spending in the state is most easily explained.

    • This was one of my more intemperate comments. The donor/beneficiary map really pushes some buttons with me. It leads a lot of people to look at a simple map and draw conclusions without having the least idea of why the map might look the way it does (particularly as it pertains to the smaller states), what the money is being spent on, and what the significance of it all is. I need to write my more comprehensive post on the subject to get it out of my system.

      • You make good points I hadn’t considered about land ownership and reservation land. I must admit in the back and forth between you and Ryan above I agree much more with Ryan. It isn’t clear why small states should get this extra boost. As such, the state isn’t really significant to me, what matters is the population size. And while the considerations you bring up are important, being in a republic and getting the views of the range of the populace, the size of the benefit given to small population states appears quite large.

        You mentioned the filibuster, but other norms of the Senate even further accentuate the power of individual senators and the power of really small percentages of the US population relative to their peers. Senatorial holds on presidential nominations for instance, Senator Shelby’s putting a hold on all Obama’s nominations for instance (pop. of Alabama, 4.8 million).

        • Any senator from any state can do a hold for virtuous or petty reasons. Shelby represents a mid-size state, right near the middle.

          That being said, what I’ve said about the filibuster can apply to holds, as well.

      • Just looking up the reasoning behind Shelby’s blanket hold, not pretty. He was upset about Grumman having to bid again against Boeing when Grumman would be constructing refueling tankers in Alabama. He was upset that Obama was holding up funding for an FBI facility in Alabama (the Hill). I know, Bismarck, legislatures, and sausage making, but awfully unimpressive nonetheless.

  8. Plinko,

    I consider there to be a fundamental difference between states within the United States and cities within individual states. Namely, in the former case, I am in the United States of America and not the United Municipalities of Arapaho*. Cities historically exist at the pleasure of the state, so New Jersey can force cities to consolidate, California can try to dissolve a city, and Michigan can take the reigns of a city. The relationship between states and the national government are more complex. We can’t force DC retrocession to Maryland without Maryland’s consent and we can’t force a Dakota merger. The federal government’s influence on such things is limited, more or less, to the boundaries as they are initially founded.

    That being said, I could be convinced that Hawaii might be better served if their senate was by island and there were disproportionate representation. I’m not from Hawaii, so I don’t know to what degree that would be a good idea, but I’m not outraged by the notion. The same goes for a very culturally different South Texas from the rest of the state, or North Louisiana versus South. Or the three distinct sections of Idaho.

    It wouldn’t be Constitutional, and given the history I understand the rationale behind that. But the Senate is about as Constitutional as anything can be.

    * – Indulge me. Arapaho is the name of the pseudonym I give my state of residence, which I do not care to divulge. Fill in Wyoming or Montana or Idaho, Colorado, or Nevada, if you like.

    (I’m doing some dethreading here.)

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