Expand the US House of Representatives

Tray Ling

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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.

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