A version of this story appears in CNN’s What Matters newsletter. To get it in your inbox, sign up for free here.
You’ve heard how US democracy can be undemocratic; the candidate who gets fewer votes is routinely elected president because of the Electoral College.
But the inequality of American democracy goes much deeper. While US citizens 18 years and older get a vote, one person’s vote goes much further than another’s. And a person from Wyoming has the most powerful vote of all.
One major reason is the size of the House of Representatives, which is frozen at 435.
Congress used to grow with the population
House seats are split up among the states — a process called apportionment — every 10 years after the census.
In the early 20th century, a skyrocketing population driven by immigration fueled fear among many rural lawmakers of the growing power of cities.
A dispute after the 1920 census ultimately led Congress to cap the size of the House at 435 seats.
It temporarily grew after the addition of Hawaii and Alaska as states, but has basically stayed the same for more than 100 years.
The number of representatives is frozen, but the US population has exploded
In 2020, that same number — 435 members of the House — represented 50 states, and the official census population was 331,449,281.
Where the average House member used to represent around 200,000 people in 1910, today it is approaching 800,000.
Not only does this put lawmakers further from the individual people they represent, but it also means different members of the House might represent a very different number of people.
Compare two similarly sized states:
- Delaware had a population of 989,948 in 2020.
- Montana had a population of 1,084,225 in 2020.
That’s a difference of 94,277 people.
But Delaware gets the minimum one representative in the House.
Montana, based on those 94,277 additional people, will get a second representative for the first time in the 2022 election.
- Delaware’s House member will represent nearly 1 million people.
- Montana’s two House members will represent about 500,000 people each.
26 people can make a huge difference
The above are the most extreme examples. Each member of the House represents somewhere between about a million people and a little more than 500,000, a large range.
The difference between losing a seat and keeping it can be incredibly thin. After the 2020 census, Minnesota maintained its eighth congressional seat by a margin of 26 people over New York.
Let that sink in.
Counting 26 people determined a full decade of congressional representation.
Millions of Americans get no say in Congress
Washington, DC, has a larger population than Wyoming, but it gets no federal lawmakers who can vote, compared with Wyoming’s House member and two senators. The same is true for more than 3 million Puerto Ricans, who have even less power because they can only take part in presidential elections if they leave their home to live in a state or Washington, DC.
Most countries have a lot more representatives per person. The United Kingdom has 650 members of Parliament, or a little less than one member per about 100,000 people. Each member represents a fraction of the people a US House member represents.
The size of the House could be unwieldy if Congress was to grow. As the founders envisioned it, the House could have more than 11,000 members today. Something in between could be better.
Just try reading all the mail
There are real-world consequences to having so few representatives for so many people.
A sample congressional office that received 9,300 messages in 2001 got 123,000 in 2017, according to an analysis by the Congressional Management Foundation.
More constituents means more work for each lawmaker, but the number of congressional staffers has fallen dramatically. So has the number of bills enacted. Congress is getting more diluted and less efficient as the same number of people represent a vastly larger country.
The growing distance between lawmakers and the people has changed the power of states
New York once had more than 40 representatives. Today it has 26.
Pennsylvania, Ohio and Illinois have also lost power. California, for the first time, lost a House member after the 2020 census.
Texas, Florida and other Sun Belt states are growing. Texas, in particular, has used partisan gerrymandering to keep the state reliably controlled by conservatives in the House, even though its growth is driven by cities and minority populations.
How to make the US more democratic
Congress could vote to uncap the size of the House, and there are plenty of good-government groups pushing this type of reform, although it is not top of mind in Washington. The arguments and options are included in a review by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Here are a few:
Idea 1: Apply the Wyoming Rule, where every district is approximately the same size as the least populous state: Wyoming.
Under that model, California would grow to nearly 70 seats. Texas would have more than 50. Montana and Delaware would probably be about equal based on their similar population size of around 1 million people.
Idea 2: Use the Cube Root Rule, where the cube root of the US population is used.
∛331 million people, as of the 2020 census, would be 692 members of the House, according to the American Academy’s math.
Either method would make for a more equal and a much larger Congress.
Idea 3: Add 150 lawmakers. The authors of the American Academy study ultimately recommend simply expanding the size of the House by 150 members and periodically adding more members as the population grows.
None of these proposals would address the other major problem affecting democracy in the House, which is gerrymandering.
Parties in states have become sophisticated in their ability to draw congressional maps. Some states have created nonpartisan or bipartisan commissions to remove some of the political gamesmanship, but another idea put forward is to have lawmakers represent multiple districts, giving more people a voice.
The Constitution actually gives great latitude to how Congress should be made up. At periods, some large states like New York have had at-large districts in addition to their mapped districts.
Then there’s the Senate, where equality for states equals inequality for Americans
There is an even greater imbalance in the Senate, where each state, by the design of the framers of the Constitution and regardless of a state’s size, gets two senators.
But states, most of which did not exist when the Constitution was written, have grown unevenly. Some populations have exploded while others have stayed relatively static.
California is one of the largest economies in the world, but in the Senate, its two senators are on par with Rhode Island and Wyoming, which have comparatively minuscule economies.
Republicans of the late 1800s actually pushed to quickly expand the number of states, thinking it would help them consolidate power. They added six states — 12 senators — in two years, in 1889 and 1890, creating a wildly different balance of power on Capitol Hill. Generations later, that imbalance is still helping Republicans, although the two parties of today bear almost no resemblance to their former selves.
And finally, the Electoral College
House and Senate representation converge in the Electoral College, where states have electors equal to their senators plus their House members. Using 2010 census data, as I wrote in 2018, California has about 12% of the population, but its 55 electors equal a smaller share of the Electoral College.
Which means each Californian voter has the least individual say at the presidential level. Because it has the smallest population and two senators, Wyomingites have the most say. There’s one presidential elector for every 192,000 or so of them, which makes for a very lopsided say in their government.