One Way to Fix the Gerrymander Problem
The subject of gerrymandered Congressional districts is once again front and center in American politics. But if you go back to one of the Founders’ original plans, the answer is obvious: decrease the ratio of constituents to congresspeople, making the House once again the representative branch of government.
Currently, there are redistricting involving North Carolina, Alabama, and New York. This comes after we’ve spent the last year plus hearing about all how many people are voting from the cemetery or residing in a single Post Office box. Suddenly Democrats scream about Alabama Republicans creating districts that guarantee six Republican seats and only one Democrat seat in a state that’s 27% Black. Is the Black community a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Democrat party, creating a property right for the political Left? Meanwhile, Jerry Nadler’s New York district looks like the colors in partly mixed taffy.
So, what’s a mother to do? All these squabbling children are pointing fingers in every direction, with little concern for facts. Then, the Supreme Court does little but tell Alabama plaintiffs to wait because the election is too close for an equitable remedy.
Back when Elbridge Gerry drew the salamander that packed his supporters into a single district, the number of voters was minuscule compared to today. Today, each Congress-Critter represents, on average, about 760 thousand people. The first US Census in 1790 showed a total of just under 4 million people total, of whom roughly 19% were slaves. It takes just five of today’s Congress-Critters to represent that many people. Count-em. Five.
I’m sure that Virginians would have been just as upset about a Vermonter “representing” them as I was about being stuffed into Corrine Brown’s district that ran from Jacksonville to Orlando and is sometimes only fifty yards wide. But it was a safe seat for her, including Black communities in both areas. I had the bad luck to live a mile from one of those.
The Supreme Court declined to intervene in Pennsylvania three years ago, noting that the districts were a state matter. So, their punt on the Alabama case may indicate that they’ll ultimately stand clear, declaring the issue to be local, rather than federal. And that brings us back full circle. One unratified Constitutional Amendment points the way out of this mess.
The original First Amendment laid out how many people could be in a single Congressional district. After a couple of steps, each Representative was targeted to have about 50 thousand constituents. If we did that, we’d have 6,600 Congress-Critters. That’s a bunch. They wouldn’t fit in the Capitol building. But with that many, each one would actually be connected to the home district. Unfortunately, that amendment is still unratified and won’t ever be. But there are other options.
Without an amendment, a 1911 statute fixed the number of Representatives at 435. With the US population then at 92 million, that meant that each Representative had about 211,000 constituents. If Congress were to expand to keep that degree of representation, then we would have 1,594 Congress-Critters. That’s not even four times as many as we have now.
Image: House chamber in the Capitol. Public Domain.
If we reduced the number of constituents per Representative, it might be difficult to get them all into the House chambers, but that’s a tradition and architecture question. Our problem is representation. And that number can be increased by an Act of Congress, not a Constitutional Amendment.
The target number of Representatives can be adjusted in a variety of ways for a variety of reasons. My preference would be to limit the size of districts to about one hundred thousand citizens. This seems to be a happy medium between actually representing the people and having an unwieldy House. Of course, there will be objections.
The classic objection will be, “Why change when things are working just fine?” As any astute student of the obvious will note, things aren’t working so well. Jerry Nadler’s district is Exhibit 1. There should be no need for such an abomination.
The next excuse is another red herring. “How do we handle hearing so many people?” This is based on the same flimsy architecture argument. And at this point, the Imperial Senate scene from Revenge of the Sith comes to mind. A large array of members are seated in a large amphitheater, listening to selected speakers. They are in turn selected as spokespersons for various constituencies. That is the solution to the problem. To make it more interesting, perhaps we could arrange the House like the British House of Commons, where each party faces the other.
The true objection is simple: Multiplying seats means diluting power and the power brokers don’t want that. They can’t keep track of that many skeletons in closets or unpaid favors. Party discipline will fade into actual representation.
The current House Chamber could still be used for various ceremonial events such as the State of the Union. A bit of creative chair-arranging would allow for the appearance of the traditional event. If it’s not possible to get so many people in, then perhaps a creative lottery or another selection method could be used. Who cares?
As for debate, how many are allowed to speak anyway? The House doesn’t hear from 435 speakers...ever. It probably doesn’t hear from more than a couple dozen because it doesn’t have the unlimited debate rules of the Senate.
Taking this a step further, most of the real persuasion happens in offices and committees. By the time something comes out of committee, it has pretty well been beaten around, and few votes remain to be whipped. But this would be an actual problem that the House could solve for itself. New rules for meetings and voting would make the old 435 seats look...well... ancient.
Coming back to the gerrymander, having a sliced and diced House would mean that it would be very easy to draw simple districts with the requisite number of citizens. A little “adjustment” here or “variant” there might sway a handful of districts, but with so many districts, that effect would probably be swamped. Instead, we’d see a lot more competitive campaigns. Of course, the Democrats won’t like that, and neither will entrenched Republicans.
But the people will love it. There won’t be saturation campaigns funded by outside money because there will be simply too many campaigns to fund. Old-fashioned shoe-leather will become valuable again. Safe, inner-city Democrat districts aren’t likely to change much. Left-leaning people tend to concentrate far more than right-leaning people do. So, Ds will multiply their inner-city seats, but their practices extract their votes from other areas. Rs will see a bigger advantage in those places because they don’t pack themselves together as tightly Ds.
We don’t trust the government. It has gotten too far away from the people, and we want some real say in what’s happening. Gerrymandering is just one illustration of how politicians protect themselves at our expense. Multiplying the number of seats in the House would be one way of diluting that power and restoring the House’s representative role.
Ted Noel MD is a retired Anesthesiologist/Intensivist who podcasts and posts on social media as DoctorTed and @vidzette. His DoctorTed podcasts are available on iHeart, Stitcher, Pandora and other channels.