With every decennial Census for the past century, the United States has become less of a representative democracy. And, if we don’t intervene quickly, it will happen again.
Upon the release last week of the first population counts for the 2020 Census, officials and activists across the country were preparing for the ugly process of fighting over the scarce number of seats that are up for grabs. New Yorkers were threatening legal moves to try to avoid losing a US House seat because the Census showed the state was 89 people short—out of 20.2 million—of the number needed to maintain its current level of representation. Voting rights activists were complaining of undercounts of Latinx voters in Arizona, Texas, and Florida. There will be lawsuits, legislative battles, and protests. But the bitter end result of all this wrangling will, if the pattern holds, be a circumstance in which the vast majority of Americans will be less well represented than when the process began.
That’s because the system, like so many of the power structures in the United States, is weighted against robust democracy. Indeed, of all the things that Americans don’t even know they should be angry about, this particular democracy deficit is the most frustrating. Why? First, because it extends from a century-old scheme to thwart change and diversity. Second, because there is no constitutional requirement that this inequity, and all the state-versus-state machinations that extend from it, should continue. A simple act of Congress could address the crude calculus that, with each new census, makes the House a less representative chamber.
The numbers tell the story
The 2010 Census counted 309,183,463 Americans for purposes of apportioning 435 seats in Congress. That meant that the average member of the House represented 710,767 people.
The 2020 Census has counted 331,108,434 Americans for purposes of apportioning the same 435 seats in Congress. However, because the overall population has increased by more than 7 percent, the average member of the House is now expected to represent 761,169 people—an increase of 50,402 constituents.
Unless something changes, when all the redistricting and gerrymandering fights of 2021 and 2022 are done, the same number of House members will be called upon to provide representation and services to a significantly higher number of people. Practically, what that means is that representatives will be more distant from the constituents they are supposed to represent, that it will be more difficult for those constituents to advocate effectively on the issues, that it will be less likely that district offices can quickly respond to queries and meet requests for help. It also means that campaigns for competitive House seats, which will need to reach many more voters, will be more costly—a shift that, if history is any indicator, is likely to increase the influence of billionaire campaign donors and corporate political action committees.
What a lousy state of affairs. But that’s our fate, right? Like presidential elections that are made more complicated and less democratic by the Electoral College—which allows losers of the popular vote to assume the most powerful position in the world, and which focuses campaigns and media attention on a handful of “battleground” states—the reapportionment of congressional districts is destined to diminish representation and grassroots democracy.
Reactionary Politics Set House Membership at 435
There is nothing in the Constitution that requires the number of House states to remain static. In fact, for the first 120 years of the American experiment, the size of the House generally grew after each new Census—from 65 members in the first Congress that served with President George Washington to more than 400 members in the Congress that served with President William Howard Taft. The boosts were often quite substantial, especially during the period of mass immigration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. For instance, after the 1900 Census, membership in the House jumped from 356 to 386. After the 1910 Census, the boost was even bigger, from 386 to 433—an increase of 47 seats.
“The expansion generally was managed in such a way that, even as the representation ratio steadily rose, states seldom lost seats from one apportionment to the next,” explained a 2018 Pew Research Center study of apportionment.
Unfortunately, as the Pew study noted, “that process ran aground in the 1920s. The 1920 census revealed a ‘major and continuing shift’ of the U.S. population from rural to urban areas; when the time came to reapportion the House, as a Census Bureau summary puts it, rural representatives ‘worked to derail the process, fearful of losing political power to the cities.’”
The 1920 Census revealed that the United States was no longer a primarily agrarian nation. It showed that the majority of Americans lived in urban (or at least relatively urban) centers, as opposed to farm country. Urban members proposed after the next apportionment increased the number of House members to 483 members, a move that would have assured that each state retained its current level of representation. But they were blocked by the rural members, who were resistant to changes in the chamber’s makeup at a time when immigrants were crowding into the nation’s large cities, Blacks were moving from the segregated South to Northern states where they were allowed to vote, and women were newly enfranchised. Before the 1930 Census, legislation was hastily enacted to formally cap the number of seats at 435.
And there it remains, more than a century after the last democracy-friendly apportionment of House seats.
Making the House More Representative
Without honest reapportionment that reflected the growing population, the ratio of constituents to members exploded.
In 1910, the average member of the House represented 210,328 Americans.
Based on the 2020 census numbers, that figure will grow to 761,169—a spike of more than 550,000 since the last time the Congress put a premium on maintaining the grassroots values associated with representative democracy.
The question is whether this Congress might change the course of the last century and respond to new Census data by expanding the number of seats in the House. As a Congressional Research Service review of apportionment issues from 1995 explained, “changing the House size only requires amending statutory law.”
A simple increase of seven seats would allow states that are slated to lose representatives—such as New York—to keep them, while at the same time allowing states that are slated to gain seats to increase their delegations. That would save a lot of wrangling over those 89 missing New Yorkers.
But it would be an arbitrary choice, made for purposes of convenience rather than democracy.
What’s really needed is a recognition that the current House is unrepresentative by many measures, and that it needs to grow in size. Along with advocacy for voting rights, elimination of the Electoral College, an end to gerrymandering, and D.C. statehood and full representation rights for US territories that are not states, democracy advocates should seek an expansion of the House that reflects this country’s continual growth and increasing diversity.
How much? If the goal was simply to keep up with population growth since 1920, the House would need to dramatically increase in size—to well over a thousand seats. That might be a hard sell, at least initially. So how about a compromise that takes a modest stab at addressing the apportionment inequities?
The Wyoming Plan
As with the US Senate and the Electoral College, the smallest states are disproportionally empowered by the current apportionment system. Every state gets one representative, no matter how small its population. So, under the 2020 Census, Wyoming, with a population of 576,851, gets one representative in the House. At the same time, New York, with a population of 20,201,249, will get 26 representatives—each representing, on average, 776,971 constituents. So a representative from Wyoming, representing 200,000 fewer voters, will have the same influence in Congress as a representative from Manhattan, or Albany, or Syracuse.
What if we simply said that Wyoming, as the smallest state, would provide the baseline for apportionment? This notion is referred to as the “Wyoming Rule,” and it is explained thusly by the election reform group FairVote: “The Wyoming Rule takes the population of the fifty states and divides it by the population of the smallest state, which then would serve as the number of congressional districts to be apportioned. The seats are then apportioned to the fifty states. This method prioritizes fairness between districts: The population of the smallest state will also be the average population of congressional districts overall.”
A perfect fix? No. In fact there are many smart proposals for how to expand the House, some of which are more mathematically precise. But, as the FairVote assessment notes, the Wyoming Rule has “the intuitive value of matching the size of districts to that of the smallest state.” It also has the advantage of being more equitable than what we’ve got now.
Under the Wyoming Rule, the size of the House would grow by an estimated 138 seats as a result of the 2020 Census. Instead of losing a seat, New York would gain as many as nine seats. California, where the population grew by 6.1 percent over the past decade (a 2 million-person spike) but which is currently slated to lose a seat, would instead add as many as 17 seats. Texas (+13) and Florida (+9) would get big bumps, as well, so this is not some “liberal wish list”—to borrow a phrase from Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell.
Expanding the House won’t solve all of this divided nation’s problems, that’s for sure. But it could make the next Congress a good deal more diverse and representative than the last.