U.S. House of Representatives should be enlarged

There was once a legislative district shaped like a salamander.  Its creator was a man named Gerry and making more weirdly shaped districts has come to be known as gerrymandering.

Every ten years, the U.S. conducts a census and, in most states, the party that controls the state legislature then gets to draw the congressional district map for the next ten years.  Last month, the Supreme Court decided it could do nothing when states gerrymandered for political purposes.

That’s not all.  Even if states stopped setting district boundaries for partisan purposes, many people would still be denied an equal vote.  Combined, the practices cheat many voters.

Gerrymandering can be fixed by states.  Improving voter equality can be fixed by Congress simply by enlarging the U.S. House of Representatives.

In many states, Republican legislatures skillfully packed Democrats into as few districts as possible, allowing the GOP to win more seats than their share of the state’s vote would give it.  The Democrats have done the same in one state.

Even in Maine with only two congressional districts, last time around the Republicans tried to reshape them to boost their chances.

Some states are moving to fix the districting process.  In Pennsylvania, for example, the state’s top court ruled that the GOP lawmakers had violated the state constitution.  In Arizona, a referendum took control over districting away from the GOP legislature, giving it to an independent commission.

More states are likely to use their own laws to reduce political gerrymandering.  And the Democrats have increased their focus on winning state legislative elections in 2020, so they can halt GOP mapmaking.  Killing the gerrymander is good hunting for them.

Even with better districting, the country still misses “one person, one vote” in House elections.  Each state gets one automatic House seat, no matter its population.  As the population exploded in some states and the total number of House members didn’t, truly equal representation across the country was steadily reduced.

At the moment, the district with the largest population has just about twice the number of people as the smallest.  That means some voters count almost twice as much as others in House elections.

To come close to eliminating the excessive influence of some voters and also make progress in ending political gerrymandering, the size of the U.S. House of Representatives should be increased.  That would lead to a major redistricting shakeup.

Congress sets the size of the House, but the last time it increased the number of members was 1911, more than a century ago.  Since then, the American population has more than tripled.

Of course, the House should not grow so large as to be unmanageable.  But with five new states added since then and huge population growth, it ought to be somewhat larger.

The best solution would be to make the target population of all House districts equal to the size of the small state that receives only the single, automatic vote – Wyoming.  The preferential effect of the automatic vote would be eliminated.

The size of the House would then increase from the current 435 to 547.  Britain, France and Germany each have larger legislatures.

The current system favors small, rural states, while holding down equal representation for California and Texas voters.  Enlargement would add representatives in 39 states, and no state would lose a seat.  It would reduce the over-representation of states that has given outsized legislative influence to the Republicans.

The result would be districts far more nearly equal in population, bringing the country closer to one person, one vote.  Smaller district populations could bring representatives closer to their constituents.  New seats would account for the growth of urban America.

More House members could lead to splitting up today’s large, unwieldy House committees so that each member could become more expert and more active.  They would not be spread over multiple committees.  New members could give the House new power.

The effect on the national budget would be almost invisible.  Even now, the entire Congress accounts for only about one-twentieth of one percent of federal spending.

Increasing the size of the House would require significantly redrawing district lines in all but the smallest states.  Beyond state action, Congress might find it had previously unused powers to ensure compact districts and kill the gerrymander.

Concern about political gerrymandering is now mounting, showing the need for the states and Congress to act.  But redistricting won’t be enough.  For the first time since 1911, the House should be enlarged to help preserve rule by “We, the People.”

Note: This is the first of a series on how to reform the federal government without amending the Constitution.

Gordon L. Weil

About Gordon L. Weil

Gordon L. Weil formerly wrote for the Washington Post and other newspapers, served on the U.S. Senate and EU staffs, headed Maine state agencies and was a Harpswell selectman.