2016 Districts (Wikimedia)

Refactoring Democracy

Part 3: The Ideal Number of Representatives

This is Part 3 of a six-part series on our Representation in the United States.

In Part 1, we reviewed the history of American apportionment of seats in the House of Representatives. In Part 2, we examined how the Act of Permanent Reapportionment dealt a fatal blow to American Democracy. Today, we’ll evaluate various methods for calculating optimal Representation.

So How Many Reps Should There Be Exactly?

Great question. Keep asking it because no one really knows. Let’s explore some options and see which ones we like the best, shall we?

The Constitutional Ratio

Without amending the Constitution, states have the right to maximize their representation to the tune of 1:30,000. Great, so let’s do that! By this ratio, we could have as many as 10,291 Representatives per the last census. That number would likely increase by another 800 after 2020 come time for the next apportionment. This method would forever give us between 3.5 and 6.5 minutes of Representative Attention Threshold (R.A.T.) time. Much better. But what are the chances that we could increase Congress by another 2,250–2,500%? I’ll let you answer that question.

Article the First Ratio

Remember that original First Amendment that never passed? Had the mistake not been made and ratified as originally drafted by the House, that method—now that we have well over the requisite 200 Representatives—would put us at “no less than one Representative for every 50,000.” By the ratio of 1:50,000, we would have 6,175 Representatives in the House per the last census and counting. Gotta love that 2–4 minutes of R.A.T.!

Dunbar Squared

Anthropologist Robin Dunbar suggests that, due to a cognitive limit, humans can only comfortably maintain 150 relationships at any one time. Imagining for a second that we have one leader per 150 people at the local level, we could apply Dunbar’s Number again one level higher to apportion our Federal House as well. Thus, we would divide total population by 150 twice, or 22,500. This fixed ratio would give us 13,722 Representatives and 5 to 9 minutes of R.A.T. time. But wait, wouldn’t that ratio be unconstitutional and far less realistic to pass than the Constitutional or Article suggestions?

Yeah, yeah, I know, but keep Dunbar in mind since it’s far less arbitrary and more defensible than 30,000 or 50,000.

Lower Houses in Other Countries

Before we evaluate other more practical solutions, let’s first take a look at how other governments are representing their people:

OECD Country Lower House Sizes (source: Ladewig & Jasinski)

With our ratio around 1:750,000, all of these countries kick our ass in terms of Representation. If anyone tries to boast that America has more Freedom than any country in the world, use these ratios to muzzle their pride.

With the sole exception of India, not a single other country out of 192 members of the U.N. that boasts a unicameral or lower house has worse representation than we do. Even North Korea has (or at least pretends to have) more democracy.

On the spectrum of democracy, we’re straight up oligarchical thugs.

Angry yet? You should be.

To compete with any of these ratios, the U.S. House of Representatives would need between 575 and 10,003 representatives (from Pakistan to Bahrain’s ratio to keep us constitutional). But by what method then could we even rationalize such counts?

Cube Root Law

Rein Taagepera observed that the cube root of other nations’ populations yields figures closely resembling the size of most lower houses. Taking the cube root of our 2010 headcount would net us 675 Representatives now and around 693 after the next census. While this law would win us an extra 50% R.A.T. between 14 to 26 seconds and better Representation overall, it would slowly fail us again over time compared to a fixed ratio method because taking the cube root results in a continuously diminishing rate of increased proportionment as population increases (i.e. by 2050, the number of citizens per representative would increase from 450,000 to nearly 550,000 and our R.A.T. would drop by 2–4 seconds). This might seem like an acceptable or even rational sacrifice to us now to have some measure of constraint keeping a governing body from getting too big, but we should try now to save our great great grandchildren from this debate.

The Wyoming Rule

As we saw earlier, current reapportionment rules result in a handful of small states having unfair overrepresentation. To combat this, someone along the way raised a rather practical solution we now call the Wyoming Rule that would have us apportion representation with a ratio baseline set by the state with the smallest population. With Wyoming’s population from the last census in at 563,767, the rule would net us 545 representatives today with another 10 or so on the way in 2020. While a 3–4 second increase in R.A.T. isn’t exactly a revolution in representation, 545 gets us much closer to where we need to be to have competitive representation abroad.

We would probably want to round up the smallest state’s population to the nearest 10,000 or 25,000 to take a little pressure off of that state during census time. And odds are still not looking great for us welcoming American Samoa or the Northern Marianas’s populations of 50,000 a piece into the Union lest we’d need to ratchet House seats up to 6,100 or more. Sorry!

The Wyoming rule still keeps our House size below every other country except India, but perhaps there’s a quick solution for that.

Half Wyoming

I still find it a bit strange that the forefathers resolved to set the minimum representation for the House to “at Least one Representative” rather than two given that only in seven states today (five by the Wyoming Rule) do their Senators represent half as many people as their sole Representative. If the Wyoming Rule instead divided the smallest state population by two and used that as the ratio baseline, the new minimum would be two representatives instead of one and we’d get 1,095 representatives.

Just throwing that out there.

While the Wyoming Rule makes a ton of practical sense, it’s entirely corruptible. It wouldn’t take much to inspire 50,000 people to move to Wyoming and knock 40 or more districts nationwide off the plate come census time. I helped get over 1,000 people to a party last Friday without any money at all. Special Interests could relocate a college campus worth of people easily. Churn here could really shock the system every ten years.

To recap the methods (most to least representatives):

  • Dunbar Squared: 13,722 (unconstitutional)
  • Pretending to be Swedish: 11,026 (unconstitutional)
  • The Constitutional Ratio: 10,291
  • Article the First Ratio: 6,175
  • Pretending to be British: 3,056
  • Pretending to be Japanese: 1,165
  • Half Wyoming Rule: 1,095
  • Pretending to be Brazilian: 749
  • Cube Root Law: 675
  • Pretending to be Pakistani: 575
  • Wyoming Rule: 545

No matter how you slice it, we’re still a ways off.

We need at least 200 new seats to admit greater diversity into the equation. Any method we use that gets us closer to that level, successfully averts today’s issue of states having varied representation, opens the door to third party brands, helps us escape zero-sum apportionment, and allows for more committees to take shape would reinvigorate American government and hope in this nation’s future more than any other single act of government.

In spite of it’s flaws, the Cube Root Law is our most promising bet. While we should all fight for better representation than that, there are a few limitations we need to account for first before committing to a method.

In the next post, we’ll cover why Congress will never realistically consider an increase to the House size on their own volition and evaluate a handful of constitutional remedies available to us to try and get around that.

This is Part 3 of a six-part series on our representation in the United States.

Next: Part 4: Obstacles to a Larger House