Improving Representation

Published by Joel K. Lefkowitz on

Does this seem fair to you? Since the last census, New York’s population grew by 700,000 more people than Montana’s. But under current procedures, New York will lose a seat in the House of Representatives and Montana will gain one.

New York will have 26 representatives, the fewest in the last 200 years. Montana will have two representatives, one per 540,000 people. At that ratio, New York’s population would merit 37 seats, an increase of 10. But unless Congress makes changes, instead of gaining seats, New York (and six others states) will lose a seat.

Why? Because of three political decisions made long ago: changing the apportionment formula; Republican manipulation of statehood; and freezing the House of Representatives at 435 seats.

The first apportionment formula led to the first veto. President George Washington vetoed only one bill in his first term, the 1792 apportionment. Thomas Jefferson showed that “instead of a single common ratio or divisor, as prescribed by the Constitution, the bill has applied two.” In the current reapportionment, Montana has a divisor of 500,000 compared to 750,000 for New York. Washington and Jefferson considered that unconstitutional.

Congress used Jefferson’s reapportionment formula for the first 50 years, followed by methods proposed by Alexander Hamilton and Daniel Webster. Since the 1940s, reapportionment has used a complicated formula based on the geometric mean, more biased toward small-population states than any method used previously. The Supreme Court upheld the current formula, justifying it with comparison to two methods — both even more biased toward small population states — that have never been used.

Different reapportionment methods could change Electoral College results. In 2000, Al Gore would have gained one electoral vote with Webster’s method, two with Hamilton’s (tying the Electoral College), and four with Jefferson’s, winning both the electoral as well as the popular vote.

Partisan statehood decisions more than a century ago have continuing consequences. After the 1888 election, with a president who lost the popular vote and narrow congressional majorities, Republicans rushed an unprecedented partisan packing of the Senate, adding six states in nine months. Before that, it had taken 30 years to add six states; after that, 69 years.

Have you ever wondered why we have states of North Dakota and South Dakota? In partisan votes Republicans split the Dakota Territory into separate states to get two more senators and two more electoral votes.

In the 1880 census, Idaho and Wyoming combined had fewer people than the average congressional district, fewer than either the cities of Albany or Troy. Republicans made Idaho and Wyoming, previously part of the same territory, into separate states. This partisan maneuver got Republicans two extra senators, two extra electoral votes, and an extra representative that New York would have gained.

In the 1880 census, Washington, D.C., had many more people than the combined population of territories admitted as four different states in that decade (Montana, North Dakoa, Idaho and Wyoming). Put another way, the city’s population could have been admitted then as four different states.

In 1841 William Henry Harrison gave the longest inaugural address, in the rain, and died of pneumonia a month later. That story is better known than what he said: Harrison contrasted rapid statehood for territories with the unfair, unconstitutional denial of political rights to Washington, D.C. residents.

That unfairness continues. Republicans oppose D.C. statehood for partisan reasons.

Then there’s the question of why the House has 435 Representatives. The writers of the Constitution intended the number of seats in the House, initially 65, to increase each decade. It did, rapidly, during their lifetimes. It has been frozen at 435 for a century. In 1920, for the first time, most people in the United States lived in cities. Congress then stopped adjusting the size of the House to benefit rural representatives and small population states.

The 1929 Permanent Apportionment Act froze the House at 435 seats and made reapportionment automatic. That shielded unfair reapportionment and made it almost invisible. Congress should repeal it.

Fairly applying Montana’s representation ratio would expand the House to 611 seats. That would be smaller than the United Kingdom’s House of Commons, which has 650 members representing 65 million people.

Improving the reapportionment method, granting D.C. statehood, and expanding the House are steps toward a more representative republic, and a more perfect union.

This piece is reprinted with permission of the Times Union, where it originally appeared.

Joel K. Lefkowitz is an associate professor of political science at the SUNY New Paltz. He authored the chapter, “New York and the National Government,” in “The Oxford Handbook of New York State Government and Politics.”


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