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Senate Representation And House Apportionment

Senate Representation and House Apportionment

The Constitution specifies that every state will have two senators who each serve a six-year term. Therefore, with fifty states in the Union, there are currently one hundred seats in the U.S. Senate. Senators were originally appointed by state legislatures, but in 1913, the Seventeenth Amendment was approved, which allowed for senators to be elected by popular vote in each state. Seats in the House of Representatives are distributed among the states based on each state’s population and each member of the House is elected by voters in a specific congressional district. Each state is guaranteed at least one seat in the House.

The 114th Congress
 House of RepresentativesSenate
Total Number of Members435100
Number of Members per State1 or more, based on population2
Length of Term of Office2 years6 years
Minimum Age Requirement2530

Congressional apportionment today is achieved through the equal proportions method, which uses a mathematical formula to allocate seats based on U.S. Census Bureau population data, gathered every ten years as required by the Constitution. At the close of the first U.S. Congress in 1791, there were sixty-five representatives, each representing approximately thirty thousand citizens. Then, as the territory of the United States expanded, sometimes by leaps and bounds, the population requirement for each new district increased as well. Adjustments were made, but the roster of the House of Representatives continued to grow until it reached 435 members after the 1910 census. Ten years later, following the 1920 census and with urbanization changing populations across the country, Congress failed to reapportion membership because it became deadlocked on the issue. In 1929, an agreement was reached to permanently cap the number of seats in the House at 435.

Redistricting occurs every ten years, after the U.S. Census has established how many persons live in the United States and where. The boundaries of legislative districts are redrawn as needed to maintain similar numbers of voters in each while still maintaining a total number of 435 districts. Because local areas can see their population grow as well as decline over time, these adjustments in district boundaries are typically needed after ten years have passed. Currently, there are seven states with only one representative (Alaska, Delaware, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming), whereas the most populous state, California, has a total of fifty-three congressional districts.

A map of the United States titled Congressional Apportionment Changes Based on the 2010 Census

Although the total number of seats in the House of Representatives has been capped at 435, the apportionment of seats by state may change each decade following the official census. In this map, we see the changes in seat reapportionment that followed the 2010 Census.

Two remaining problems in the House are the size of each representative’s constituency—the body of voters who elect him or her—and the challenge of Washington, DC. First, the average number of citizens in a congressional district now tops 700,000. This is arguably too many for House members to remain very close to the people. George Washington advocated for thirty thousand per elected member to retain effective representation in the House. The second problem is that the approximately 675,000 residents of the federal district of Washington (District of Columbia) do not have voting representation. Like those living in the U.S. territories, they merely have a non-voting delegate.

The stalemate in the 1920s wasn’t the first time reapportionment in the House resulted in controversy (or the last). The first incident took place before any apportionment had even occurred, while the process was being discussed at the Constitutional Convention. Representatives from large slave-owning states believed their slaves should be counted as part of the total population. States with few or no slaves predictably argued against this. The compromise eventually reached allowed for each slave (who could not vote) to count as three-fifths of a person for purposes of congressional representation. Following the abolition of slavery and the end of Reconstruction, the former slave states in the South took a number of steps to prevent former slaves and their children from voting. Yet because these former slaves were now free persons, they were counted fully toward the states’ congressional representation.

Attempts at African American disenfranchisement continued until the civil rights struggle of the 1960s finally brought about the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The act cleared several final hurdles to voter registration and voting for African Americans. Following its adoption, many Democrats led the charge to create congressional districts that would enhance the power of African American voters. The idea was to create majority-minority districts within states, districts in which African Americans became the majority and thus gained the electoral power to send representatives to Congress.

While the strangely drawn districts succeeded in their stated goals, nearly quintupling the number of African American representatives in Congress in just over two decades, they have frustrated others who claim they are merely a new form of an old practice, gerrymandering. Gerrymandering is the manipulation of legislative district boundaries as a way of favoring a particular candidate. The term combines the word salamander, a reference to the strange shape of these districts, with the name of Massachusetts governor Elbridge Gerry, who in 1812, signed a redistricting plan designed to benefit his party. Despite the questionable ethics behind gerrymandering, the practice is legal, and both major parties have used it to their benefit. It is only when political redistricting appears to dilute the votes of racial minorities that gerrymandering efforts can be challenged under the Voting Rights Act. Other forms of gerrymandering are frequently employed in states where a dominant party seeks to maintain that domination. As we saw in the chapter on political parties, gerrymandering can be a tactic to draw district lines in a way that creates “safe seats” for a particular political party. In states like Maryland, these are safe seats for Democrats. In states like Louisiana, they are safe seats for Republicans.

Gerrymandering in Austin, Texas, 2003 through 2015.

These maps show examples of gerrymandering in Texas, where the Republican-controlled legislature has redrawn House districts to reduce the number of Democratic seats by combining voters in Austin with those in surrounding counties, sometimes even several hundred miles away. Today, Austin is represented by six different congressional representatives.

Racial Gerrymandering and the Paradox of Minority Representation

In Ohio, one skirts the shoreline of Lake Erie like a snake. In Louisiana, one meanders across the southern part of the state from the eastern shore of Lake Ponchartrain, through much of New Orleans and north along the Mississippi River to Baton Rouge. And in Illinois, another wraps around the city of Chicago and its suburbs in a wandering line that, when seen on a map, looks like the mouth of a large, bearded alligator attempting to drink from Lake Michigan.

These aren’t geographical features or large infrastructure projects. Rather, they are racially gerrymandered congressional districts. Their strange shapes are the product of careful district restructuring organized around the goal of enhancing the votes of minority groups. The alligator-mouth District 4 in Illinois, for example, was drawn to bring a number of geographically autonomous Latino groups in Illinois together in the same congressional district.

While the strategy of creating majority-minority districts has been a success for minorities’ representation in Congress, its long-term effect has revealed a disturbing paradox: Congress as a whole has become less enthusiastic about minority-specific issues. How is this possible? The problem is that by creating districts with high percentages of minority constituents, strategists have made the other districts less diverse. The representatives in those districts are under very little pressure to consider the interests of minority groups. As a result, they typically do not.

What changes might help correct this problem? Are majority-minority districts no longer an effective strategy for increasing minority representation in Congress? Are there better ways to achieve a higher level of minority representation?

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