Expanding the United States House of Representatives
With every decennial census of the past century, the United States has become less of a representative democracy. And, if we don’t act quickly, it will happen again.
When the first population counts for the 2020 census were released last week, officials and activists across the country were bracing for the gruesome process of tackling the low number of seats up for grabs. New Yorkers threatened to take legal action to avoid losing a seat in the United States House because census showed the state was missing 89 people – out of 20.2 million – of the number needed to maintain its level current representation. Voting rights activists complained about the undercoverage of Latinx voters in Arizona, Texas and Florida. There will be lawsuits, legislative battles and demonstrations. But the bitter end result of all these bickering will be, if the pattern holds, a circumstance in which the vast majority of Americans will be less well represented than at the start of the process.
This is because the system, like so many power structures in the United States, is balanced by a robust democracy. Indeed, of all the things that Americans don’t even know they should be angry about, this particular democratic deficit is the most frustrating. Why? First, because it goes from a century-old scheme to counteract change and diversity. Second, because there is no constitutional requirement that this inequality, and all the state-to-state machinations that flow from it, continue. A simple act of Congress could resolve the crude calculation which, with each new enumeration, makes the House a less representative chamber.
Numbers tell the story
The 2010 census counted 309,183,463 Americans for the purpose of distributing 435 seats in Congress. This meant that the average House Member represented 710,767 people.
The 2020 census enumerated 331,108,434 Americans for the purpose of distributing the same 435 seats in Congress. However, given that the overall population grew by more than 7%, the average MP is now expected to number 761,169, an increase of 50,402 voters.
Unless something changes, when all the redistribution and gerrymandering fights of 2021 and 2022 are over, the same number of MPs will be called upon to provide representation and services to a significantly larger number of people. In practical terms, this means that representatives will be further removed from the voters they are supposed to represent, that it will be more difficult for those voters to advocate effectively on issues, that it will be less likely that district offices can respond quickly. queries and respond to requests for help. It also means that campaigns for competitive seats in the House, which will need to reach many more voters, will be more costly – a change which, if history is any indicator, is likely to increase the influence of donors. Billionaires campaign and corporate political action committees.
What a bad state of affairs. But it’s our destiny, right? Like the presidential elections made more complicated and less democratic by the Electoral College – which allows losers in the popular vote to assume the most powerful position in the world, and which focuses campaigns and media attention on a handful of “battlefield” states – the reorganization of congressional districts is intended to diminish grassroots representation and democracy.
Reactionary Politics Fix Home Membership at 435
There is nothing in the Constitution that requires the number of states in the House to remain static. In fact, during the first 120 years of the American experiment, the size of the House generally increased after each new enumeration – from 65 members in the first Congress that served with President George Washington to over 400 members in Congress. who served with President William Howard Taft. The increases were often quite substantial, especially during the period of mass immigration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. For example, after the 1900 census, the number of members in the House rose from 356 to 386. After the 1910 census, the increase was even greater, from 386 to 433, an increase of 47 seats.
“The expansion has generally been managed in such a way that while the representation rate has steadily increased, states rarely lose seats from one distribution to the next,” explained a 2018 Pew Research Center study on division.
Unfortunately, as the Pew study notes, “this process collapsed in the 1920s. The 1920 census revealed a ‘major and continuing shift’ of the American population from rural to urban areas; when the time came to reassess the House, as a Census Bureau summary put it, rural representatives “worked to derail the process, fearing that they would lose political power to the cities.”
The 1920 census revealed that the United States was no longer a predominantly agrarian nation. He showed that the majority of Americans lived in urban (or at least relatively urban) centers, as opposed to agricultural countries. Urban members proposed after the next split to increase the number of House members to 483 members, a move that would have ensured that each state retained its current level of representation. But they were blocked by the rural members, who were resistant to changes in the makeup of the chamber at a time when immigrants thronged into the country’s major cities, blacks were moving from the segregated southern states to the north where they were. were allowed to vote, and women. were newly emancipated. Prior to the 1930 census, a law was hastily enacted to formally cap the number of seats at 435.
And it stays there, more than a century after the last democratic distribution of seats in the House.
Make the house more representative
Without an honest reorganization reflecting population growth, the voter-to-member ratio has exploded.
In 1910, the average House Member represented 210,328 Americans.
Based on the 2020 census figures, that number will rise to 761,169 – a peak of over 550,000 since Congress last focused on upholding core values associated with representative democracy.
The question is whether this Congress could change the course of the last century and respond to new census data by increasing the number of seats in the House. As a Congressional Research Service review of allocation issues from 1995 explained, “changing the size of the house only requires changing statutory law.”
A simple increase of seven seats would allow states that should lose representatives – like New York – to keep them, while allowing states that should gain seats to increase their delegations. That would avoid a lot of arguments over those 89 missing New Yorkers.
But that would be an arbitrary choice, made for the sake of convenience rather than democracy.
What is really needed is to recognize that the current House is not representative in many ways and that it needs to grow. Along with advocacy for the right to vote, elimination of the Electoral College, an end to gerrymandering, DC statehood, and full representation rights for non-state US territories, advocates of democracy should seek an expansion of the House that reflects the continued and increasing growth of this country. the diversity.
How? If the goal were simply to keep pace with population growth since 1920, the House would need to significantly increase its size – to well over a thousand seats. It could be a tough sell, at least initially. So how about a compromise that takes a little push to address distribution inequalities?
The Wyoming plan
As with the US Senate and Electoral College, smaller states are disproportionately given powers under the current distribution system. Each state has a representative, regardless of the size of its population. So, according to the 2020 census, Wyoming, with a population of 576,851, has a representative in the House. At the same time, New York, with a population of 20,201,249, will have 26 representatives, each representing an average of 776,971 voters. Thus, a representative from Wyoming, representing 200,000 voters less, will have the same influence in Congress as a representative from Manhattan, Albany or Syracuse.
What if we just said that Wyoming, as a smaller state, would provide the basis for the allocation? This notion is called the “Wyoming Rule,” and is explained by electoral reform group FairVote: “The Wyoming Rule takes the population of the fifty states and divides it by the population of the smallest state, which would then serve as the population. the number of congressional districts to be allocated. Seats are then distributed among the fifty states. This method prioritizes equity between districts: the population of the smallest state will also be the average population of congressional districts as a whole.
A perfect solution? No. In fact, there are many clever proposals for enlarging the House, some of which are more mathematically precise. But, as the FairVote review notes, Wyoming’s rule has “the intuitive value of matching district sizes to that of the smallest state.” It also has the advantage of being fairer than what we have now.
Under Wyoming rule, the size of the House would increase by about 138 seats as a result of the 2020 census. Instead of losing one seat, New York would gain up to nine seats. California, where the population has grown 6.1% over the past decade (a peak of 2 million people) but is currently expected to lose one seat, would add up to 17 seats instead. Texas (+13) and Florida (+9) would also have big bumps, so this is not a “liberal wish list” – to borrow a phrase from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Enlarging the House will not solve all the problems of this divided nation, that is for sure. But that could make the next Congress much more diverse and representative than the last.