We’re nearly two decades into the 21st century, so why is America still operating with a House of Representatives built for the start of the 20th?
The House’s current size — 435 representatives — was set in 1911, when there were fewer than one-third as many people living in the United States as there are now. At the time, each member of Congress represented an average of about 200,000 people. In 2018, that number is almost 750,000.
This would shock the Constitution’s framers, who set a baseline of 30,000 constituents per representative
and intended for the House to grow along with the population. The possibility that it might not — that Congress would fail to add new seats and that district populations would expand out of control — led James Madison to propose what would have been the original First Amendment: a formula explicitly tying the size of the House to the total number of Americans.
The amendment failed, but Congress still expanded the House throughout the first half of the nation’s existence. The House of Representatives had 65 members when it was first seated in 1789, and it grew in every decade but one until 1920, when it became frozen in time.
There’s a solution, which involves adding 158 new seats to the House of Representatives, making it proportionally similar to most modern democracies. To understand the implications of a larger House, we enlisted software developer Kevin Baas and his Auto-Redistrict
program to draw 593 new congressional districts for the entire country. (Read on for an explanation of how we chose that number.) Then we used historical partisan scores to determine which party would win each district.
While our expanded House map hasn’t been subjected to the same testing as a real redistricting plan, it offers a sense of how a bigger House might affect the nation’s politics. One main takeaway: it would create a more competitive landscape, with 25 percent of seats qualifying as toss-ups, compared to just 10 percent today. Many states that elect only Republicans today would elect a Democrat or at least become more competitive, and vice versa.
The bottom line is that the House today is far too small, and that poses a big danger to American democracy.