Elected leaders in America are supposed to be representative of the people they serve.

Building a Democracy Fit for the 21st Century

Implementing these Senate Reforms Could Help Ensure a More Representative Democracy

By Cynthia Richie Terrell – Executive Director, RepresentWomen

A Representational Crisis

The United States Senate is an anomaly in American democracy. Following Supreme Court rulings in the 1960s that affected all other legislative bodies in the country, the Senate is the only legislature in the nation in which representatives do not represent an equal number of people. Senators represent states on an equal basis, with two seats per state regardless of population. While there are good reasons to be concerned about what this means for representative governance, it also creates an opportunity. We can work together to make the U.S. Senate truly reflect the gender diversity of the United States. 

Representation of women in the U.S. Senate dropped from an all-time high of 26 in 2020 to only 24 women in the 117th Congress.  Of the 1,994 individuals who have served as senators since 1789, only 58 (2.9%) have been women; only 32 (1.6%) have been people of color; and only two Black women have been elected to the body.  Without intentional action, women, and women of color in particular, will continue to be underrepresented in the United States Senate for generations.

Balancing the Senate

However, addressing this representational crisis is possible. Change could even happen this decade through political will and collective action by political parties and gatekeepers. In 2028, for example, any senator up for reelection who is of the same gender as the other senator from their state would be urged to retire and only candidates of another gender would get party backing and endorsements to run. Both the Republican and Democratic parties would benefit electorally from adopting this rule and supporting qualified women’s candidacies. Party leaders, donors, and PACs could harness the energy for equality and become champions in the challenge to reach gender balance in the U.S. Senate.

A bolder approach would be to embrace the value of balanced gender representation in the U.S Constitution with an amendment to be implemented by the 2028 elections. This transformative amendment could state that no gender could hold both Senate seats in any given state. Staggered Senate races in the following election cycles would ensure that there would be gender balance in the U.S. Senate by 2033.

While amending the Constitution may seem like a heavy lift, there is a rich history of using the amendment process to advance democratic principles and equality. Examples of this tradition include the 15th amendment, which enabled Black men to vote; the 17th amendment, which allowed for the direct election of senators; the 19th amendment, which granted women the right to vote; and the 26th amendment, which lowered the voting age to 18. These amendments were enacted by those in power on behalf of those lacking power, to expand who had a seat at the table.

Other Representative Fixes

There is every reason to make the Senate fully representative of more than just states. Evidence from the countries that use gender quotas to level the playing field for women in politics suggests that parties, candidates, and voters alike have embraced gender balance rules. The majority of the countries ranked as strong democracies by the World Economic Forum and other indices have used some form of gender quota to increase women’s political representation.

Research confirms more than 100 countries around the world, including many of our democratic allies, have adopted temporary special measures or gender quotas for their national legislatures to ensure that women’s lived experiences and perspectives are part of the process of governing and policymaking.

Additional Reforms

In addition to the gender balance rules proposed above, we can implement other reforms to make the Senate more democratic and representative of the people, including:

  • Make D.C. a state and allow self-determination for all U.S. territories. Giving voting power and a congressional voice to D.C. and other U.S. territories could help to improve the diversity of the Senate and of voting House members. 
  • Adopt a proportional representation electoral system to elect both the Senate and the House. Ranked-choice voting in multi-winner districts, which are included in the Fair Representation Act (Rep. Don Beyer), would help to level the political playing field, limit the incumbency advantage, and allow more opportunities for women and candidates from other underrepresented communities to run and win elected office. 
  • Debate and pass a slate of common-sense reforms to modernize the Senate process. To ensure bipartisan cooperation, their implementation should be after the 2022 midterm elections so neither party can game the system in their favor. 

The Senate is facing a crisis of representation that is quickly becoming untenable for a modern democracy. Women are more than half of Americans — and voters — but remain underrepresented in government. Women of color are alarmingly underrepresented in the halls of Congress. While the U.S. has bolstered and protected our “democratic” traditions, other democracies have evolved and adopted institutional reforms like gender quotas designed to level the playing field and ensure a diverse and representative government. A democracy fit for the 21st century requires a 21st century Senate.


This article is part of Divided We Fall’s “Constitutional Questions” series, covering a range of political topics fundamental to the U.S. Constitution and democratic institutions. Through this series, we ask constitutional scholars, journalists, elected officials, and activists to discuss how these ideals are – and are not – implemented today. If you want to read more pieces like this, click here.

Cynthia Richie Terrell
Founder and Executive Director of RepresentWomen at | Website | + posts

Cynthia Richie Terrell is the founder and executive director of RepresentWomen and an outspoken advocate for rules & systems reforms to advance women’s representation and leadership in the United States. Previously, Terrell worked extensively on political campaigns, serving as campaign manager and field director for campaigns for the U.S. President, U.S. House, and U.S. Senate, for governor, and for state and city-wide initiative efforts, including a state equal rights amendment and a city campaign for fair representation voting. In 2020 Terrell was named a Brewer Fellow along with a cohort of leaders in the democracy reform movement. Terrell has been published in numerous print journals including the Washington Post, The New York Times, The Hill, etc.

2 comments

John Whitmer July 13, 2021 at 1:05 pm

This article is an excellent example of “outside-the-box” thinking. But, alas, just because a proposal is sensible, is supported by many (even a majority) and corrects obvious problematic aspect of a system doesn’t mean it will happen. In my more cynical moments I sometimes suspect such qualities help doom it. That said, the suggestions here are worthy of serious consideration.

Reply
Wayne Smith July 12, 2021 at 8:21 pm

The House needs to be expanded to 700 members. The Senate can also be expanded to three Senators per state. Elect all three at once using the Single Transferable Vote.

And get rid of the filibuster.

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