“Diluting the weight of votes because of place of residence impairs basic constitutional rights under the Fourteenth Amendment just as much as invidious discriminations based upon factors such as race.”
– Reynolds v. Sims
One Person, One Vote
When a legislature’s electoral districts are materially unequal with respect to their population sizes, voters living in the larger districts are politically disadvantaged in comparison to those living in the smaller districts. To understand why, imagine living in a congressional district of 400,000 residents, while each of the other districts in your state contain only 200,000 residents (with each district electing a single Representative). Because your district is twice as large than the others, your individual political weight is one-half of those living in in the other districts. This is, in effect, a partial disenfranchisement: Though the citizens in your large district are allowed to cast a ballot, it is really only 50% of a ballot!
Historically, the problem was that within any given state, a disparity in electoral district sizes would sometimes be created deliberately to discriminate against certain groups. In the late 19th Century, for example, the Republican and Democratic parties made an unspoken cynical bargain that partially disenfranchised African-Americans in the south, and immigrants in the north, by crowding them into overly large congressional districts. As a result, it was common that some US House districts were 40% larger than others within the same state.
To address this inequity, in 1964 the Supreme Court established the principle that for any given legislative body, all of its electoral districts should be equally sized with respect to their population. The purpose of this is to ensure that “as nearly as is practicable one man’s vote in a congressional election is to be worth as much as another’s”. This principle, which the Supreme Court inferred from the Constitution through a series of rulings, became known as “one person, one vote”. For better and for worse, this imposed a one-size-fits-all solution on the knotty problem of grossly unequal electoral districts.
Since then, electoral equiproportionality – equally sized electoral districts – has generally come to be regarded as a sacrosanct principle which must be applied to every legislative body in the country, from the city councils to the state legislatures. Despite that, the U.S. House of Representatives, the nation’s most important legislative body, arrogantly disregards it by refusing to increase the number of Representatives allowed to the people.
Most people are unaware of this inequity because it is effectively obscured behind a veneer of compliance: Today, every congressional district within each state has nearly the exact same population (when they are initially created). However, when we zoom out, we discover that there is an egregious disparity in the size of congressional districts nationwide. No two states have congressional districts that are the same size, and the largest district in the country contains 82% more people than the smallest one!
In the adjacent table, the states are sorted by their congressional district population size from smallest (542,704) to largest (990,837), to reveal the range of representational inequality among Americans.
These district sizes are calculated by dividing each state’s total population by the number of Representatives apportioned to it (based on the 2020 population census). Each state’s average district size is then compared to the national average of 761,169 to determine the relative political “weight” of its citizens.
Bear in mind that the larger the district, the more politically disadvantaged are its residents. As an example, let’s compare two states that each have two Representatives: Montana and Idaho. Montana’s average district size (542,704) is 28.7% smaller than the national average, which means their citizens have 28.7% more political weight than the average American. In contrast, Idaho’s average district size (920,689) is 21% larger than the national average, giving their citizens 21% less political weight.
The state-to-state comparisons of representational weight reveal even greater disparities. For example, there are five instances where one state’s residents have less than 60% of the political weight of the residents of another state. Specifically, Delawareans have 55% of the political weight of Rhode Islanders, and Idahoans have 59% of that of Montanans. As a benchmark, 60% is a significant value, because it is equal to three-fifths, the fraction referenced in the Constitution. Using this benchmark, it can be said that a Delawarean is less than three-fifths of a Rhode Islander, and likewise for an Idahoan vis-à-vis a Montanan. Of course, the ⅗ in the Constitution was a consequence of the abhorrent reality of slavery, whereas the modern ⅗ results from having the size of the House fixed at an arbitrarily small number. However, given the loathing directed towards this fraction in the Constitution, one would expect that this modern inequity would warrant some degree of condemnation.
It might be assumed there is a correlation between the population sizes of the states and the population size of their districts but, in fact, there is absolutely no correlation. States with larger populations can have smaller districts, and vice versa.
These unpredictable results do not end there. The misallocation of representation among the states changes from apportionment to apportionment, and in a way that seems virtually random, as can be shown with a few examples.
Eleven states that enjoyed greater political weight (than the national average) after the 2010 census went negative after the 2020 apportionment. And 13 other states that were negative after the 2010 apportionment became positive because of the 2020 apportionment. Montana, for example went from being negative 40% (2010 apportionment) to being positive 29% after the 2020 apportionment. This is because Montana gained an additional Representative as a result of a 9% population growth from 2010 to 2020.
There are more examples. As a result of a 3.5% population decline, West Virginia lost a Representative, and their relative weight went from +13% to negative 18%. And despite a 17% population increase, Idaho did not gain a Representative, so their relative voter weight worsened from negative 11% to negative 21%.
All of these seemingly capricious results are due to the vagaries of apportionment mathematics when there are far too few Representatives relative to a total population of 330 million. As a result, the selection of winners and losers relative to the allocation of political weight is, in effect, a lottery.
It may be easier to understand the extent of the representational inequality by considering the total number of people residing in congressional districts which are either smaller or larger than the national average. For the purposes of this tabulation, we will disregard those districts that are within 1% of the national average.
Over 71 million people enjoy the advantage of living in districts that are at least 1% smaller than the national average. Over twice that number (147 million) suffer the disadvantage of living in districts that are at least 1% larger than the average, and thus they are partially disenfranchised. This is obviously an inequitable apportionment of representation no matter how it is analyzed.
The political weight advantage (or disadvantage) held by each state’s citizens is better illustrated by the adjacent bar chart, in which the states are sorted alphabetically. This chart is based on the same percentages referenced in the table above. For example, citizens in Arizona’s nine congressional districts have 4.5% less political weight than the national average, while those living in Colorado’s eight districts have 5% more than the national average.
As shown in the chart, the largest disparities resulting from the 2020 apportionment of 435 Representatives is Delaware’s 30.2% political disadvantage, compared to Montana’s 28.7% advantage. Because Delaware’s district is 82% larger than Montana’s, citizens of the latter state have 82% greater political weight than Delawareans.
What is the justification for Montanans to have so much more political weight than Delawareans? Or why should the citizens of North Dakota have 14% more political weight than those of South Dakota? More broadly, what is the justification for the citizens of the advantaged states (indicated by the green bars) having more political weight than those of the disadvantaged states?
There is obviously no possible justification for such inequitable disparities, especially when every other legislature in the country is required to have equally sized districts. Instead, Americans are expected to suffer these inequities in order to preserve the political oligarchy which is consolidated in Washington, D.C.
The Zero-Sum Game
The founders expected the size of the House to be increased every ten years along with the nation’s total population. When the number of Representatives is fixed at a specific number, apportionment becomes a zero-sum game. That is, in order for one state to gain a Representative, another state has to lose one. Having a fixed number of Representatives relative to the total population can create unexpected and indefensible outcomes with respect to the apportionment of representation: A state can gain or lose an entire congressional district based on a tiny variation in its population.
For example, as a result of the 2020 population census, the state of New York was only 89 residents short of keeping their 27 Representatives, so their total delegation was reduced to 26. In other words, New York lost 3.7% of their representation due to a 0.00044% shortfall in their total population! Alternatively, if the population of one or two other states had not increased by a relatively small amount, then New York would have kept all 27 of its Representatives. Again, such ridiculous outcomes are a result of there being far too few Representatives relative to the total population of a multi-state republic.
No matter how you look at it, such a consequential change in representation should not hinge on tiny changes in a state’s total population. In a House of only 435, the gain or loss of a single Representative is very consequential for a state. This provides a powerful incentive for states to game the system by engaging in questionable census data collection practices, which undermines the credibility of the population census itself.
Losing a Representative as a result of a shortfall of only 89 residents is an absurd consequence of having the size of the House fixed at the ridiculously small number of 435. If the maximum district population size were 50,000, as was proposed by the first Congress, then New York’s total number of Representatives would have actually increased by approximately 16 as a result of the 2020 census. Those additional 16 Representatives would have further added to the diversity of viewpoints and capabilities in our lower House.
A Choice Between Political Equality or Political Oligarchy
The Supreme Court has decreed that one-person-one-vote equality is the constitutional law of the land relative to legislative bodies. And while it is an imperfect solution, it appears to be the least bad solution for minimizing political inequality among voters, at least with respect to representative assemblies.
As a result of a series of Supreme Court rulings, the congressional districts within every state are equally sized, thereby creating the illusion of one-person-one-vote equality. However, that voter equality ends at the state border. The population sizes of congressional districts range from 30% below the national average to 28% above. As a result, some voters are “more equal” than others (to paraphrase Animal Farm). For example, the citizens of Montana will be 82% more equal than citizens of Delaware after the 2020 apportionment is implemented. And this inequity is not limited to the House of Representatives, as these representational disparities are duplicated in the Electoral College.
There is a simple remedy for this egregious inequity: Substantially enlarging the House of Representatives will result in equally-sized congressional districts nationwide, thereby establishing citizen equality and restoring the People’s House. However, by refusing to do this, Congress has created an absolutely indefensible political inequality among Americans. This raises the question: If such egregious disparities are deemed acceptable by the most powerful legislative branch in the nation, why should all the other legislatures be held to such a strict standard? The answer from our imperial House of Representatives is that “the rules are for thee, but not for me”.
If the House is operating in an unconstitutional manner, then why doesn’t the Supreme Court order it to comply? The short answer is that the Supreme Court refused to deal with this question, claiming that the federal courts have a “lack of jurisdiction” over a coequal branch of government. In short, in order to protect America’s political ruling class, the Congress has put itself above the Constitution.
It would not require a constitutional amendment to enlarge the House. Congress could correct this inequity at any time simply by increasing the number of Representatives by several thousand. However, it will never do so voluntarily, other than perhaps to grant a few dozen more Representatives in hopes of making the issue disappear. The political ruling class will forever oppose ending this insidious political inequality as that would then enable citizen legislators to replace career politicians. Therefore, it may ultimately require a Constitutional amendment to compel the Congress to do what is right.
Restoring citizen equality is just one of the ways that significantly downsizing our congressional districts will enable we the people to take back our government from the powerful Special Interests. Numerous other benefits of representational enlargement are explained in the other sections of this website.
© Thirty-Thousand.org [Article Updated 02/01/22]
AnnenbergClassroom.org: One Person, One Vote: Baker v. Carr and Reynolds v. Sims.
DemocracyDocket.com: Redistricting 101: How Politicians Choose Their Voters.
Connecticut Law Review: One Person, One Vote, 435 Seats: Interstate Malapportionment and Constitutional Requirements Is Our Constitutional Order Broken (2011)