Commentaries on Representation

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Commentaries on Representation

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Population Miscounts and Apportionment Inequities

Population miscounts are inevitable, but their inequitable impact on apportionment is greatly magnified by having too few Representatives.

Based on the official 2020 population census, the state of New York was 89 residents short of keeping all of its Representatives in the House of Representatives.1New York Times: New York Loses House Seat After Coming Up 89 People Short on Census (April 28,2022) As a result, beginning with the 118th Congress, it will lose one of its 27 House members, and its Electoral College delegation will be reduced from 29 to 28. In other words, New Yorkers lost 3.7% of their representation in the federal House due to an infinitesimal (0.00044%) shortfall in the state’s reported population total! And whether New York was 89 residents short, or just one, the result would have been the same, as close doesn’t count in apportionment math!

As it turns out, such incredibly disproportionate changes in representation in response to variations in the states’ population totals is an inevitable mathematical consequence of having only 435 Representatives “represent” well over 300 million people in a multi-state republic. This is, in effect, a corollary to the fact that the US House of Representatives is in egregious violation of the constitutional requirement of one-person-one-vote equality. And like that unconstitutional malapportionment, the problem of representational disproportionalilty diminishes as the House becomes larger.  In order to illustrate this fact, we compared the official apportionment derived from the 2020 census to an apportionment derived from a hypothetical alternate census.

To create this alternate census, we started with the 2020 population census and made relatively small adjustments to each state’s population total. In order to create a plausible scenario, those adjustments were derived from the population miscount estimates provided by the Census Bureau’s Post-Enumeration Survey (“PES Report”). The resulting percentage adjustment for each state is indicated by a small scarlet diamond () in the chart below.

Based on that alternate census, we then recalculated the apportionment to determine how those population adjustments would affect the states’ House delegation sizes, and the results were quite remarkable. Relative to a House with 435 Representatives, the resulting percentage change in each state’s delegation size (if any) is indicated by the dark gray bars. Note that, in this scenario, the following six states either gained or lost a Representative: Colorado, Florida, Minnesota, Rhode Island, Tennessee, and Texas. (For a full explanation of this analysis, see the Analysis of Apportionment Sensitivity to Population Miscounts.)

With respect to the apportionment of 435 Representatives (dark gray bars), note how disproportionate most of those changes are relative to the underlying changes in population (). For example, though Colorado’s total population was decreased by only 2.1%, that resulted in a 12.5% reduction in the size of its House delegation. Reducing Rhode Island’s population by 4.6% reduces its representation by 50%! Increasing Tennessee’s population by 4.9% increases its representation by 11%.  And though Arkansas and Hawaii had even larger population adjustments (+5.2% and -6.2%, respectively), both states’ delegations were unaffected! If that doesn’t seem equitable, it’s because it isn’t.

As shown in the chart, such inequitable outcomes would be eliminated if the number of Representatives were significantly increased.  The light yellow bars illustrate how these same population adjustments would impact representation if there were 6,692 Representatives. Why 6,692? Because that number would be in compliance with the intended version of the very first amendment proposed for the Bill of Rights. In this scenario, notice how the impact of the population changes is spread more equitably across 36 states. For example, Colorado’s House delegation would have been reduced by only 2.6% in response to its population decrease of 2.1% (contrast that to a reduction of 12.5% under the 435 scenario).

More examples when the House is much larger: Hawaii loses 6.7% of their delegation as a result of its 6.2% decrease in apportionment population (whereas they suffered no loss under the 435 scenario). And Rhode Island loses only 4.5% of its delegation (rather than 50%) which is almost equal to its population decrease of 4.6%.  The point is, when the number of Representatives is sufficiently large, most of the states’ percentage changes in representation will closely approximate their percentage changes in population (as would be expected).

A metaphorical way of thinking about these two different House sizes is to imagine apportioning, to the fifty states, 435 bowling balls versus 6,692 marbles.  It is intuitively easy to understand why thousands of marbles can be allocated far more proportionately than a few hundred bowling balls.  Moreover, when allocating the marbles, small adjustments in the states’ population totals will generally produce approximately similar changes in each state’s allocation of marbles. In contrast, when reallocating bowling balls based on the same population adjustments, most of the states remain unaffected, with the aggregate impact of those adjustments being disproportionately, and inequitably, consolidated into just a few states.

Therefore, when there are only 435 Representatives, the apportionment process effectively becomes a lottery relative to how the last few Representatives are allotted: Relatively minor population variations, or miscounts, will likely result in a jackpot prize for a few states, to the detriment of several other states. This places an extraordinary burden on the Census Bureau to produce nearly flawless population totals, a very unreasonable expectation given that it would require the census to be conducted in an exceedingly scrupulous and consistent manner in all of the states. The reality is that a census of hundreds of millions of people is such a massive undertaking that some miscounting is inevitable even under the best of circumstances.

However, relative to ensuring the integrity of the census, perhaps the greatest risk of having too few Representatives is the powerful incentive it creates for some states to deliberately game the census process. It stands to reason that the opportunity to gain (or avoid losing) a significant share of representation would induce some states to engage in aggressive practices to boost their census counts.  In fact, based on data provided by the Census Bureau’s PES Report, the 2020 population census appears to have been heavily skewed to advantage one political party over the other.  Even if that bias proved to be a statistical fluke, the mere appearance of deliberate data manipulation can greatly undermine the public’s faith in the census and apportionment process.

The point is, regardless of the reasons for any population miscounts, greatly increasing the number of Representatives will substantially reduce the inequitable apportionments that result therefrom. And to the extent such miscounts are deliberate, enlarging our representation will virtually eliminate this powerful incentive for states to game the population census.

© [Published 7/20/22, updated 7/24/22]

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