How Radically Reducing Electoral Districts Can Save Government of, by and for the People.
The U.S. political system has a big problem. Our electoral districts have grown much too large.
By historical standards, and by current global standards, electoral districts at all levels of government in the United States are enormous.
Though the U.S. Constitution mentions House congressional districts of 30,000 persons as an appropriate size, congressional districts now average 760,000, by far the most for any national assembly among Western democracies.
Most U.S. Senate districts encompass millions or tens of millions of people because US Senates Districts are, of course, based on state populations. Only five states contain fewer than one million people.
The vast majority of Americans live in state legislative districts that have also grown too big, with New York, Florida, Texas and California topping the list with lower house districts of 135,000, 179,000, 194,000 and 494,000, inhabitants, respectively.
Even some local governments, which are supposed to be closest to the people, can have absurd citizen-to-elected-official ratios. Many American city counselors are elected from districts containing a hundred thousand city residents or more, or even a million people if the city counselor is elected at-large.
The biggest problem with large electoral districts is that political campaigns to win them are extremely expensive, which means that professional politicians routinely take campaign donations from the same interests they regulate or fund in order to sell themselves to their own constituents.
The act of holding political office in America today usually resembles bribery, extortion and marketing more than it does representative democracy.
Does it really have to be this way?
Now, in the Internet Age, is there any reason that electoral districts can’t be radically reduced in size and representatives multiplied in number?
Couldn’t the people’s representatives be based at home, in many community-sized districts, where neighbors would elect neighbors in affordable elections, and civic-minded citizens might serve in government without selling their souls?
Isn’t it time to think big about fixing our system of representative government by considering the power of very small electoral districts?
The Decay of American Democracy: A Brief History
At the Constitutional Convention that created the nation’s founding document, George Washington spoke only once. It was at the end, when it seemed that the delegates were settling on US House district sizes of 40,000 inhabitants each. Washington thought this number too many. Finally, the great hero of the American Revolution rose. He declared that he believed such a large number, “an insufficient security for the rights and interests of the people,” and urged the reduction of congressional districts to 30,000 inhabitants.
Washington’s support for congressional districts of 30,000 passed by acclamation but in fact the change accomplished very little of substance because 30,000 was a minimum size. Congressional districts were free to grow unconstrained under the Constitution, a fact that greatly alarmed anti-federalist critics, among other issues.
To help allay anti-federalist fears, the first U.S. Congress passed the Bill of Rights, which is well known. Far less well known is the original first amendment to the U.S. Constitution (as distinct from the “First Amendment” to which we are accustomed), which would have limited U.S. House district sizes to between 30,000 and 50,000 inhabitants until population increases would bring House membership to 200 Representatives. That it was the first amendment proposed suggests Washington’s concerns about electoral district size were widely shared by the founding generation.
A tangle of problems, however, kept the amendment from being adopted by the requisite number of states. First of all, the amendment would obviously become obsolete within just a few decades when population growth would increase Congress to two hundred members. Then what?
Many elite federalists worried that if the U.S. House grew too large then it might become unwieldy. Given that ancient Athens had governed itself with an assembly of 6,000 citizens, perhaps unwieldiness was the least of the challenges.
Small states were reluctant to pass the amendment for political reasons because their power in a growing U.S. House would inevitably become diluted.
Critically, America’s vast and expanding territory made a very large U.S. House nearly impossible. The difficulty of physically traveling to a distant capital had serious consequences two hundred years ago. Small early American assemblies, on the scale of a single colony or state, could struggle with achieving a quorum. How, then, could still more, ever-increasing elected representatives at the federal level, be expected to travel from ever-increasingly distant frontiers?
As things stood, bad weather, poor roads, or the poverty of remote regions sometimes meant that frontier communities went unrepresented. This is why few subjects in early American politics were as hotly argued as the decisions where to locate seats of government. Legislation prejudiced against people living great distances from capitals could be so burdensome that hinterland regions occasionally rose up in armed rebellions.
Therefore, though America’s founding generation understood the necessity of keeping legislative districts small, practical considerations made this important objective unworkable before advances in transportation and communications technology, particularly the railroad and the internet, which would come much later. Consequently, the Constitution’s original “first amendment” was never adopted.
Small-district citizen government nevertheless remained a cornerstone of American representative democracy. The Founding Fathers of the United States counted on ordinary citizens to elect their most trusted neighbors. With only 30,000 constituents, a Member of Congress would be known by his fellow citizens, if not firsthand, then by only a few degrees of separation. Elections were about personal reputations, not mass marketing.
Into the 1800s, congressional districts grew in size. Voters were increasingly unlikely to be acquainted with their Representatives personally, but political party machinery rotated activists in and out of government, so many different citizens had a chance to serve in office and share in the role of governing. Abraham Lincoln, for example, served only one term in Congress before becoming President. Nineteenth Century Americans understood that democracy was about ordinary citizens serving in government, and not merely casting votes at election time.
Yes, political parties were corrupt, slavery continued, and women remained disenfranchised, but nevertheless, nowhere in the world was there greater popular self-government. It was an amazing achievement, chronicled by the astute French observer, Alexis De Tocqueville, in his influential book, Democracy in America.
After the Civil War, American politicians remained in office longer and elections became less competitive, as Republican and Democratic party bosses rigged the system to give each party “safe seats” through the manipulation of district boundaries into self-serving shapes and unequal sizes — a corrupt process known as gerrymandering.
Additionally, the “spoils system,” which took root in the age of Andrew Jackson, meant that party operatives controlled the machinery of elections. It was an invitation to voter fraud that would help keep “safe seats” safe.
The eventual establishment of professional civil servants alleviated the problems associated with partisan control of bureaucracy. Even more significantly, women and African Americans finally got the vote, undoubtedly crucial achievements for American democracy.
Such substantial and obvious successes, however, may have masked five major insidious developments, beginning in the late 19th Century, which have, in combination, resulted in the overall decline of representative government in the United States. They are as follows:
First, the federal government vastly increased in power. From railroad sponsorship, through the New Deal, the Cold War’s military industrial complex, the Great Society, big bank bailouts, and trillions of dollars more spent on too many wars, crises, projects, and programs to mention, the size and scope of American government grew by leaps and bounds. In addition to expending immense public resources, government also took on massive regulatory authority to correspond with profound advances in technology. For better or worse, the U.S. government today is a behemoth unimagined by the authors of the Constitution.
Second, business interests found they could manipulate this newly powerful government by legally bribing politicians with campaign donations.
Third, professional politicians discovered they could raise enormous sums from these interests, if not through bribery, then by legalized extortion. After 1946, Members of Congress voted themselves large staffs to service their large districts, containing hundreds of thousands of voters, and act as de facto full-time reelection campaigns. Career politicians replaced political parties as fulcrums of power.
Fourth, the huge campaign war chests raised by professional politicians could be spent in new and powerful broadcast media, perpetuating these same politicians in office, so that 95% of them are now regularly reelected even while overall approval of Congress’ job performance remains mostly abysmal. Rather than serve the people as a whole, career politicians cater to the moneyed special interests that permit them to successfully market themselves to their own constituents.
Fifth, now in the Internet Age, exponentially more powerful social media serves political and corporate interests, by continuously spewing hate-filled, fear-driven, and often micro-targeted messaging that has convinced significant swaths of the public that “the other side” is evil or recklessly stupid, in need of control or overthrow, perhaps by any means necessary. Democracy, as well as American society’s civic virtue, or social capital, has become corrupted and weakened by top-down, money-driven, techno-authoritarian manipulation.
It’s time to change course, before it’s too late. We have the tools to restore liberal democracy and popular trust in government, which in turn can help quell deliberately manufactured partisan division and hatred. It all starts with much smaller electoral districts, decentralized and connected on the Web as necessary, which would bring about a new era in true democratic representation.
The Benefits of Small Electoral Districts
Citizens should be represented in government by neighbors they know and trust, who could legislate from home in small districts based on the scale suggested by George Washington: 30,000 people or less. Internet Age telecommunications make it possible, just as it makes working from home and online learning not only possible, but normal.
Decentralized, Web-connected, small electoral districts would have numerous advantages over large ones.
Most essentially, the smaller political districts get, the better they mirror the values, interests, and desires of ordinary citizens, as well as the nation’s inherent diversity.
John Adams put it best when he said that a representative assembly “should be in miniature, an exact portrait of the people,” which “should think, feel, reason, and act like them.” Small electoral districts can bring us far closer to this ideal than the current US Congress or big-state legislatures full of professional politicians and millionaires.
The key is to lower the barrier to entry for public-spirited people who might otherwise be discouraged from running in a large district against an entrenched professional politician.
For the 2021–2022 election cycle, the average amount of money spent in a U.S. House race was a staggering $1.8 million. Obviously only a small minority of citizens can realistically contemplate winning a seat in Congress, but a district of 30,000 inhabitants can be won at a tiny fraction of the cost, with yard signs, leaflets and shoe leather. In districts of 30,000 or less, campaigns become affordable.
As electoral districts get smaller, they tend to be represented by elected officials who are more like ordinary people and less like professional politicians. In other words, the smaller the electoral districts, the less irresponsibly partisan and short-sighted government will be.
As districts get smaller, they also become more difficult to gerrymander. It’s not possible for a small district to stretch halfway across a state to encompass some key voting bloc. Citizens would again pick their representatives, and not the other way around.
Without the need for vast sums of money, elected officials would be far less beholden to corporations, public unions and partisan political establishments. The incentives for elected officials would then shift from serving selfish interests to serving the common good.
In small districts, citizens have access to their own representatives, with whom they can easily meet and interact. Currently, most elected officials rely on personal staff to engage with constituents. Eliminating personal staff and multiplying elected officials will cause government to operate better because elected officials will see for themselves, directly, the challenges faced by their constituents.
Counterintuitively, hundreds or thousands of citizen-representatives would make government more efficient because small-district democracy would provide far better government oversight. Presently, members of Congress and big-state legislators are spread thin over many committees. It’s impossible for them to do justice to their many committee responsibilities, even if they weren’t spending most of their time fundraising and politicking.
A plethora of citizen representatives drawn from the nation’s many diverse walks of life could bring a tremendous range of specialized expertise to bear on every significant public policy challenge, government program, and regulatory agency. Since committees are where public policy is mostly formed, government would function much better.
The U.S. Senate and state senates, can remain, in contrast, relatively small and in-person. Among the possibilities, upper houses could be elected by members of the new large Web-connected lower houses (which is similar to what James Madison initially proposed in the Virginia Plan) or even picked via lottery out of them. Possibly the 17th Amendment could be repealed, and U.S. senators again chosen by newly expanded state legislatures.
No legislative body in America need have large electoral districts in which candidates must rely on massive financial support from special interests, hopelessly corrupting both elections and legislation.
The Restoration of Public Trust and the Practice of Democracy
If all the advantages of small electoral districts were to be summed up in one word, that word would be “trust.” Small-district democratic representation promotes public trust in government.
The evidence from around the world today is clear. Of the 38 democratic countries belonging to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in which popular opinion polling shows trust in government above 50%, the median lower house electoral district size is somewhere between Denmark’s, with 31,112 citizens per district, and New Zealand’s, with 36,683. In OECD countries where trust in government is below 50%, the country with the median lower house size is Costa Rica, with 83,134 citizens per district. Put another way, representative democracies in which a majority of citizens trust their government have legislative districts almost two-and-a-half times smaller than in countries where most citizens do not.
The United States has become an extreme outlier, with US House Districts representing 733,084 persons (as of these numbers from 2020), far from the distant second-to-last OECD country on the list, Brazil, with 409,644.
In addition to Denmark, noted above, the other Nordic countries also have small electoral districts. Norway has legislative districts averaging 30,460, Sweden 27,862, Finland, 26,344 and Iceland has tiny districts of 5,037. They are among the top twelve OECD governments when it comes to the trust of their own citizens.
Nordic counties take democracy seriously at every level of government. Stockholm, Sweden is governed by its Municipal Assembly of 101 members, who though elected every four years, are not professional politicians, but citizens who convene twice per month in meetings open to the public. The Council, in turn, elects a Municipal Executive Committee of 13 members, which is responsible for carrying out the wishes of the Assembly. Eight full-time Commissioners are also elected, to oversee various aspects of city administration.
Compare Stockholm to Los Angeles, which is governed by a single mayor, elected at-large, and a city council of fifteen members — each allegedly representing 266,000 city residents. The examples of these two cities indicate that voters, like all people in the aggregate, are rational actors. Because Swedes have the power to affect their local governments, they participate in great numbers. Participation in Stockholm elections was 84% in 2018. Meanwhile in Los Angeles, a city with the dubious distinction of having the worst representation ratios by district of any city in the United States, voter participation can dip below 20%.
Waning voter participation is not only a sign of trouble today, but it also bodes ill for tomorrow. The less Americans participate in their own political system in the present, the less capable they will be of governing themselves in the future. Democratic participation exercises the muscles of self-government. Unworked muscles atrophy. As our democratic muscles weaken, we put at risk every political value we Americans have traditionally held as sacred.
California is the poster child for poor citizen representation at all levels of government. In addition to Los Angeles, mentioned above, San Diego has one council member per 159,000 inhabitants, San Jose one for 100,000 and San Francisco one for 80,000. Eleven California counties have more than 100,000 county residents per Supervisor, including Los Angeles County, which has a ludicrous 2,000,0000 residents per Supervisor. These are local governments, which are supposed to be intimately close to the people.
California State Assembly districts comprise almost 500,000 inhabitants each and State Senate districts nearly 1,000,000 each, the worst ratios for state level representation in the United States.
The Nordic countries and California are each populated by citizens with progressive values, but what the Nordics understand is that if the state is empowered with generous authority and resources, then genuine citizen oversight is essential lest special interests gorge themselves at the trough of power at the public’s expense.
As for conservatives, big red states like Florida and Texas have no reason to gloat, because when it comes to democratic representation, they are on the same path as California. In Texas, there’s one state senator for every 938,000 residents and one lower house member for every 194,000. For Florida, the numbers are 541,000 and 180,000, respectively. Small-district democracy is no less imperative for free-market Republicans and Libertarians than for Democrats or democratic socialists, because if corporate interests can capture the government, then free markets will no longer be free.
There should be no controversy. Significantly improving democratic representation is about the most non-partisan issue imaginable
Our Necessary Mission
Sometimes, in the course of American history, our people have been faced with tasks that are as difficult as they are necessary. This is one of those times, and radically scaling down the size of our electoral districts is one of those tasks.
While there are no precise parallels, the American Revolution was fundamentally about political representation. The generation of 1776 went to war against the greatest military power on earth to ensure that Americans were properly represented in government.
With independence won, the glaring hypocrisy of a nation founded on the idea of all men being created equal, yet tolerating human slavery, could not be allowed to stand. Slavery had to be abolished, no matter the time and cost.
Similarly, all “men” being equal was not enough. In a truly democratic system, women are entitled to vote. Women’s suffrage was another political mission about representation that was so just and necessary that the battle had to be fought until it was won, no matter what.
These were all reasonably seen as “impossible” missions in their day, but in each case, the American people persisted and wholesome democratic values ultimately prevailed.
We cannot let the difficulty of restoring true citizen representation stand in our way now, because we will not have a functioning democratic government until we break our political system back down into community-sized political districts. Like the Revolution, abolition, and women’s suffrage, we must attend to this mission until it is accomplished.
Twenty-three out of fifty states have a citizens initiative process that permit the people, themselves, to circumvent the political class of partisan politicians and special interests and make state laws and constitutional changes. Among these states are blue California and red Florida.
Imagine if California and Florida, which are each bigger than many nations, modeled small district democracy for the rest of the United States. Would decentralizing the U.S. Congress into many small districts be far behind?
To prepare individual states for the transition to small-district democracy, we can start in America’s cities, where American citizens are barely represented at all compared to many European city residents. The Economist ranks the world’s “most livable” cities. For 2022, the top three were Vienna, Copenhagen and Zurich. What do these have in common? Each is governed by city legislatures comprised of citizen representatives, with ratios of approximately one representative per every 20,000, 15,000 and 3,500 city residents, respectively.
American cities are, by contrast, run by professional politicians, typically claiming to represent 100,000 or even one million people. For examples, Phoenix, Arizona, has eight city counselors, one per 200,000 residents. Philadelphia has ten city counselors who are elected from districts containing 160,000 people each, and the city also has six more at-large councilors, who supposedly each represent the entire city of 6.1 million Philadelphians. New York City has fifty-one city counselors, which sounds more democratic, except that each is elected by 166,000 residents.
Many, if not most, American city charters can be changed by citizens’ initiative. The beauty of starting a campaign for small-district democracy in America’s cities is that such an approach cannot be characterized as dangerously radical. As already noted, working models already exist in some of the world’s most successful cities, and in urban areas, there’s usually no need to decentralize small-district representation on the Web. Starting in our cities, we can begin to build a political culture of small-district democracy.
Small-district democracy is far from impossible if we plan and pick our battles well. It begins by understanding that our real enemy is not each other, but control of government by moneyed and relentlessly partisan political interests.
These interests have been able to dominate America’s political system through the growth of electoral districts into large and costly media markets, which has enabled the commodification of politics. Reduce electoral districts to the size of relatively small communities, where political campaigns are inexpensive, and special interest control of America’s political system will be broken.
If we were to heed George Washington’s advice and reduce congressional districts to 30,000 inhabitants each, it would mean about 11,000-members of Congress.
It’s a shocking number but not a crazy idea.
Eleven thousand members of the Congress elected from districts of 30,000 persons each would mean citizen-members of Congress, working from home remotely, among their own constituents, the people they are supposed to represent.
It would mean the application of exponentially more citizen oversight of government and professional diversity behind public policy decisions.
It would restore fair elections and defang corrupt special interests.
If enacted at all levels — federal, state and local — small district representation, on the scale suggested by George Washington, would restore government of, by and for the people.
Learn more at CitizensRising.org