Search Penny Hill Press

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The U.S. House of Representatives Apportionment Formula in Theory and Practice

Royce Crocker
Specialist in American National Government

On December 21, 2010, the number of seats allocated to each state for the House of Representatives was announced. This allocation likely will determine representation to the House for the next five Congresses.

The Constitution requires that states be represented in the House of Representatives in accord with their population. It also requires that each state have at least one Representative, and that there be no more than one Representative for every 30,000 persons. For the 2010 apportionment, this could have meant a House of Representatives as small as 50 or as large as 10,306 Representatives.

Apportioning seats in the House of Representatives among the states in proportion to state population as required by the Constitution appears on the surface to be a simple task. In fact, however, the Constitution presented Congress with issues that provoked extended and recurring debate. How many Representatives should the House comprise? How populous should congressional districts be? What is to be done with the practically inevitable fractional entitlement to a House seat that results when the calculations of proportionality are made? How is fairness of apportionment to be best preserved? Apportioning the House can be viewed as a system with four main variables: (1) the size of the House, (2) the population of the states, (3) the number of states, and (4) the method of apportionment.

Over the years since the ratification of the Constitution, the number of Representatives has varied, but in 1941 Congress resolved the issue by fixing the size of the House at 435 members. How to apportion those 435 seats, however, continued to be an issue because of disagreement over how to handle fractional entitlements to a House seat in a way that both met constitutional and statutory requirements and minimized inequity.

The intuitive method of apportionment is to divide the United States population by 435 to obtain an average number of persons represented by a member of the House. This is sometimes called the ideal size congressional district. Then a state’s population is divided by the ideal size to determine the number of Representatives to be allocated to that state. The quotient will be a whole number plus a remainder—say 14.489326. What is Congress to do with the 0.489326 fractional entitlement? Does the state get 14 or 15 seats in the House? Does one discard the fractional entitlement? Does one round up at the arithmetic mean of the two whole numbers? At the geometric mean? At the harmonic mean? Congress has used, or at least considered, several methods over the years.

Every method Congress has used or considered has its advantages and disadvantages, and none has been exempt from criticism. Under current law, however, seats are apportioned using the equal proportions method, which is not without its critics. Some charge that the equal proportions method is biased toward small states. They urge Congress to adopt either the major fractions or the Hamilton-Vinton method as more equitable alternatives. A strong mathematical case can be made for either equal proportions or major fractions. Deciding between them is a policy matter based on whether minimizing the differences in district sizes in absolute terms (through major fractions) or proportional terms (through equal proportions) is most preferred by Congress.

Date of Report: August 2, 2013
Number of Pages: 30
Order Number: R41357
Price: $29.95

To Order:

R41357.pdf   to use the SECURE SHOPPING CART


Phone 301-253-0881

For email and phone orders, provide a Visa, MasterCard, American Express, or Discover card number, expiration date, and name on the card. Indicate whether you want e-mail or postal delivery. Phone orders are preferred and receive priority processing.