There are now 331 million Americans, the U.S. Census Bureau says. That means big changes are coming for the fifty states, which each receive a slightly different allotment of government funds based on their respective populations. But each state also gets a certain number of members of the U.S. House of Representatives based on an approximate formula that starts with each state getting one member and the additional members appropriated based on population.
This formula is set by the Constitution. But it isn’t the Constitution that sets the size of Congress – currently 435 members – but a 1929 law. Congress could increase the number of seats if they wanted to but, in nearly a century, the number of seats has remained the same.
There are a ton of problems with this.
To our north is Canada. With a population of 38 million, it’s a little over one-tenth the size of the United States, or approximately the same size as California. Its House of Commons, though, has 338 seats, only about 20% smaller than the U.S. House.
Russia, who at 146 million is less than half as populous as the U.S., has a national legislature with 450 seats. There are 709 seats in the German Bundestag and Germany only has 83 million inhabitants.
New Hampshire, population 1.36 million, has 400 members in its House of Representatives. New Hampshire.
It disadvantages more states than you might expect
As the smallest state in the union, Wyoming has one representative in the House for its 577,719 people. On the other end is California, who has fifty-three representatives for her 39,538,223 people, a ratio of one representative per 746,004 inhabitants.
There’s a tendency to say this is good for small states like Wyoming and bad for big states like California. But that’s an oversimplification.
Montana, with a population of 1.08 million, will gain a seat under the 2020 Census, bringing it to a total of two. That will give it one seat per 540,288 residents. Rhode Island, whose population slipped to just 1.06 million in 2020, also has two seats: one for every 530,000 residents. Maine also has two seats with a population of 1.35 million: one seat per 675,070 residents.
Vermont has just one seat for its 643,077 residents, which means you’d have more representation if you move to Montana or Rhode Island.
California will lose a seat as a result of the 2020 Census. The numbers are staggering. A California district will now have 760,350 people in it. Compare that to a Rhode Island district: the difference is one Chula Vista for every single district in California. Statewide, that’s a difference of 11,960,000 people between California and Rhode Island districts. Actually divide the states based on population – using Rhode Island districts as your basis – and Rhode Island gets two. California gets seventy five.
The number is too small
No system can be perfect. Maine, for example, doesn’t have 1.6 million inhabitants – the number needed to build three districts with 530,000 residents. Vermont would still just have one district for its 643,077 residents.
But what if you doubled the size of the House?
In an 870-person House, a district would have approximately 380,500 people in it. Since every state has a population larger than that, you can fit better districts into each state. Adjusting for the population variances across the country, Rhode Island gets three districts (each with 353,333 residents) while California gets 102 (each with 387,629 residents). These districts would still be unequal but much closer to each other than they are under the current system.
The current 435-seat structure is just too restrictive for a country that has more than tripled in population since that number was picked.