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Civics lesson: Why some states have more members of the U.S. House than others

UPDATED: Mon., Feb. 15, 2021

The Idaho House of Representatives debates a constitutional amendment in the Statehouse in Boise.  (Keith Ridler)
The Idaho House of Representatives debates a constitutional amendment in the Statehouse in Boise. (Keith Ridler)

Each week, The Spokesman-Review is examining one question from the exam taken by immigrants trying to become United States citizens.

Today’s question: Some states have more representatives than other states. Why?The answer to this question is relatively straightforward: Because some states have more people than other states. Washington has 10 members of the U.S. House and Idaho has two.

But underneath, it’s part of a debate the Founding Fathers had about the new government they were designing, which is a combination of a democracy and a republic, and how they would make sure the democratic part could continue to be representative as the country grew.

The most democratic part of the federal government was, and still is, the House of Representatives. Its members are apportioned based on each state’s population, with the caveat that each state must have at least one representative. After that, the remaining seats are divided among the states based on their population through a complicated formula.

By comparison, the Senate gives each state, regardless of its population, two members. It was a way for the Founding Fathers to allay the fears of smaller states, and those with slaves who would only be counted as three-fifths of a person, that their concerns wouldn’t always be outvoted by the more populous states.

To determine how many people there are in the country and make sure the members of the House represented roughly equal populations, the Constitution required a full count, or census, every 10 years. The last one was conducted in 2020.

Originally, there was to be one representative for every 30,000 people in a state. But as the nation grew, and states were added, disagreements arose over how to divide up – or apportion – those seats. In 1910, there were 435 representatives.

“A battle erupted between rural and urban factions, causing the House (for the only time in its history) to fail to reapportion itself following the 1920 Census,” the U.S. House of Representatives website says.

It took until 1929 to reach a decision on how to cap the total at 435 and create a formula for reapportioning seats every 10 years. It has remained at that number since then, except for a brief period after Alaska and Hawaii became states in 1959. They each got a member of the House until after the 1960 census, when reapportionment could take place and the number of representatives went back to 435.

Parts of the country that are not states, such as the District of Columbia or U.S. territories, get a delegate to the House of Representatives, who has limited voting privileges.

With each census, the overall population of the country has grown, but some states grow faster than others, and sometimes a state will lose population. That means every 10 years some states see their congressional delegation grow after the census, and others see theirs shrink.

Washington started with one representative when it became a state in 1889, and was awarded a second seat after the 1890 census. It received a third seat after the 1900 census; its fourth and fifth seats after the 1910 census and a sixth after the 1930 census. The seventh seat was added after the 1950 census, the eighth after the 1980 census, the ninth after the 1990 census and the 10th after the 2010 census.

Idaho had one House member from the time it entered the union in 1889 through the 1910 census, when it gained a second House seat, which it still has.

The projections for the 2020 census suggest neither Washington nor Idaho will gain another seat this time.

While the federal government, through the census, determines how many House seats a state will have, it leaves to each state’s Legislature the way territory is divided equally among the allotted number of seats. Over the decades, this sometimes resulted in a party that had majority control of a Legislature establishing boundaries that favored its party members and disadvantaged those of the other party.

Strangely drawn boundaries are called gerrymanders, which comes from some of the earliest attempts to draw boundaries in Massachusetts and that advantaged the party of the governor, Elbridge Gerry, while being shaped like a salamander. (Gerry was one of the Founding Fathers, signed the Declaration of Independence, was a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, a member of the first Congress and the nation’s fifth vice president. But he is best remembered for the gerrymander.)

Washington and Idaho both appoint independent commissions to draw the lines for the congressional and legislative districts. That doesn’t mean politics is completely out of the process, but it limits the amount of influence a majority party can have in retaining control by designing safe districts for its members and competitive districts for the minority party.

Unlike the U.S. Congress, state Senate seats in Washington and Idaho are also based on the population figures provided by the census. The boundaries have to shift every 10 years to accommodate different rates of population growth, and with each census the number of people a state legislator represents grows.

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