Half-Baked Ideas: Congressional Reapportionment

There aren’t enough members of the House of Representatives here in the United States. I know that the idea that there are not enough politicians in Washington is anathema to the current American condition, but as the House is currently apportioned, some states have disproportionate representation.

Currently, there are 435 voting members of the House, representing the 50 states. The number of representatives was fixed into law by the Apportionment Act of 1911. For over a hundred years, then, the number of House members has not changed, although the population of the country has increased by more than 250% since that time. Also, because of shifting populations and other demographic changes, the amount of representatives per resident can swing wildly depending upon the state in which one resides.

For example, the 2010 census counted the population of Wyoming, the least populous state in the union, as numbering about 563,000 people. That means that Wyoming’s single House member represents 563,000 people. Meanwhile California, the most populous state, with a 2010 census number north of 37 million, has 53 House members represent approximately 703,000 people each. That’s a massive disparity in the influence House members from Wyoming have compared to California.

Lest one think this article has a liberal bias, here’s another example.

Rhode Island, with a 2010 population of just over 1 million, has two representatives in the House, so each member represents about half a million people. Meanwhile Texas, the largest of the red states, with a population of 25 million and 36 representatives, has one House member for every 698,000 residents of the state. No matter one’s ideology, the current apportionment of the House of Representatives, the chamber that is not supposed to have weighted votes, is unfair to many millions of Americans.

But, this is a half-baked idea. I can suggest fixes to persistent problems without worrying about reality or unintended consequences. The fixes are the easy part, of course. The people who can actually make change happen have interests different from the obvious or the fair. That’s one of the things that makes this idea half-baked. When it comes to the distribution of political power, it’s nice to be able to say that things should be this or that way, but actually getting ideas implemented requires the needs of those passing the laws to be met. It can be expected that no legislator will be thrilled with the idea of decreasing their power, which is what would happen in the reapportionment scheme I will introduce below. So, this is highly unrealistic, but is an interesting idea for how House seats could be apportioned.

The Apportionment Act of 1911 created a maximum number of representatives. That’s great for making sure we never need a bigger Capitol Building, but ignores the fact that the population of this country is ever increasing. In order to bring the number of representatives closer in line with the population growth of the United States, it is necessary to do away with the maximum. Don’t worry, though. This isn’t as terrifying as it sounds.

In 1911, 435 representatives meant there was a representative for about every 212,000 people. If the country had kept that ratio constant, today there would be more than 1,400 members of the House. No one wants that. I have a different idea.

Wyoming, as mentioned above, is the least populous state, with about 563,000 people. Being the least populous state, there is but a single Congressional district. Rounding down a bit to 560,000, we can use this as a baseline population for a Congressional district. That is, every state in the country would be awarded Congressional districts based on their population versus the least populous state. If a state has at least twice the baseline population, it gets two representatives. If it has ten times the baseline, it gets ten representatives.

In a state like Kansas, which had a population of 2.85 million as of the 2010 census, that would mean the state would get 5 House members, an increase of one over that currently apportioned. That’s pretty close to 560k residents per representative. Kentucky, meanwhile, with a population of 4.34 million, would get 7, coming up short of the 4.48 million that would be required to get it an eighth member. That works out to around 619,000 people per representative. That’s not the best ratio, but is better than what the current system awards Texas and California, for instance.

The table below shows how membership in the House of Representatives would change using this lowest population baseline method.

State 2010 Census (k) Total Reps New Total Reps
Alabama 4,858 7 8
Alaska 710 1 1
Arizona 6,392 9 11
Arkansas 2,915 4 5
California 37,254 53 66
Colorado 5,029 7 9
Connecticut 3,574 5 6
Delaware 897 1 1
Florida 18,804 27 33
Georgia 9,688 14 17
Hawaii 1,360 2 2
Idaho 1,567 2 2
Illinois 12,831 18 22
Indiana 6,484 9 11
Iowa 3,046 4 5
Kansas 2,853 4 5
Kentucky 4,339 6 7
Louisiana 4,533 6 8
Maine 1,328 2 2
Maryland 5,773 8 10
Massachusetts 6,547 9 11
Michigan 9,884 14 17
Minnesota 5,303 8 9
Mississippi 2,968 4 5
Missouri 5,988 8 10
Montana 989 1 1
Nebraska 1,826 3 3
Nevada 2,700 4 4
New Hampshire 1,316 2 2
New Jersey 8,791 12 15
New Mexico 2,059 3 3
New York 19,378 27 34
North Carolina 9,535 13 17
North Dakota 672 1 1
Ohio 11,536 16 20
Oklahoma 3,751 5 6
Oregon 3,831 5 6
Pennsylvania 12,702 18 22
Rhode Island 1,052 2 1
South Carolina 4,625 7 8
South Dakota 814 1 1
Tennessee 6,346 9 11
Texas 25,146 36 44
Utah 2,763 4 4
Vermont 620 1 1
Virginia 8,001 11 14
Washington 6,724 10 12
West Virginia 1,853 3 3
Wisconsin 5,687 8 10
Wyoming – base 560 1 1
Total 435 527

Instead of 435 House members, or a horrifying 1,400 member House if 1911 ratios held true, there would be 527. That’s an increase of 92, which is very manageable. 34 states would see their membership in the House grow, while only one, unlucky Rhode Island, would see their number of representatives shrink, from two to a single at-large district. The big winners would be Louisiana and North Carolina, which would see their Congressional delegations increase by 33% and 30%, respectively. The average increase across all states is 21%.

By pegging the number of districts a state is eligible for to a baseline that changes with every census, the size of the House is kept in check. Every ten years would see the total number of representatives increase or decrease based on total population versus the least populous state, preventing the type of explosion in representation that would happen if the ratio of representatives to people was fixed.

The number of House members would increase dramatically only if there were an unprecedented migration out of the least populous state, bringing the ratio down. If Wyoming suddenly lost 100,000 people at the next census, and the rest of the population of the country didn’t change, the total number of House members would increase to about 664. That type of population loss in the smallest state, a decrease of 18% in ten years, would be very unusual, and would still result in a manageable number of House members. It would take something truly traumatic to upset the ratio to the point the House is too bloated.

This is a half-baked idea, but it is also a more fair apportionment of House seats than that which exists in reality. I came up with this without trying very hard, and it’s a better system than what we have.

For further shits and giggles, let’s see how the past presidential election would have gone if there were 630 electors instead of 538 (for those who don’t remember, the number of electors is equal to the total number of House and Senate members, plus 3 for the District of Columbia). For simplicity’s sake, I will not break out Maine and Nebraska’s vote by district.

map_redblue_2016_reapp

Oh, look at that. Hillary Clinton still loses 357 to 273, even though her popular vote lead stands at more than 2 million. That’s no surprise, as the problem with the Electoral College is more with the College itself, not the apportionment of electors. But, remember that disparity in representation I wrote about above? It gets worse when you consider electors.

Wyoming has 3 electors, or 1 elector for every 187,000 residents. Michigan has 16 electors, or 1 elector for every 617,000 residents. That’s not a typo. Wyoming’s residents have more than three times as much influence on the outcome of the presidential election than do residents of Michigan. Numbers like that are scattered all over the nation. Yeah, the Electoral College has to go, and that’s a good idea, not a half-baked one.