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The case for massively expanding the US House of Representatives, in one chart

Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

If you live in the United States and feel unrepresented by your House member and senators, there might be a surprisingly simple reason: Elected officials have to represent vastly more people here than in other countries.

People per representative by country Pew Research Center

The average member of the US House of Representatives represents 747,184 people. That’s a strikingly high number compared to other rich countries. This is partially a result of America’s unusually large population — sure enough, Japan, the second-most-populous developed nation in the world, has the second-highest number of people per representative — but it also reflects policy choices as to how large to make the national legislature.

For instance, Australia has a little more than a third as many people as the United Kingdom (24.5 million versus 66.2 million), but while each member of the 650-person British House of Commons represents about 100,000 people on average, each member of the 150-person Australian House of Representative has to represent 164,686, per Pew’s numbers. If Australia were to make a similar policy choice to the United Kingdom and increase the size of its lower house fourfold, then it would have a representation ratio more fitting of its population size.

The US is big enough that it would be very difficult to get to a representation ratio similar to that of, say, Denmark. There, 5.8 million people (including the 100,000 or so on the Faroe Islands and Greenland) are represented by 179 members of the Folketing, for a ratio of roughly 32,622 people per representative. If the US were to achieve that ratio, we’d need to expand the US House to 9,946 members.

But we might be able to get to the ratio of, say, Germany, whose 82.1 million residents are represented by 709 Bundestag members currently; the total membership varies election to election due to the country’s proportional representation scheme. That’s a ratio of one representative for every 115,817 people, meaning the US House would have to have 2,801 members. That would create some space issues in the Capitol but would still be smaller than China’s legislature, the National People’s Congress, a body that exists mostly to rubber-stamp the Communist Party’s decisions but that nonetheless fields 2,980 members.

All that said, it’s worth asking what the benefits of a bigger House would be, exactly. One thing it might do is prevent quirks that lead certain states to be overrepresented at the expense of others. As Pew’s Drew DeSilver notes, Montana’s 1,050,493 residents have one House member, while Rhode Island, despite having only 9,146 more people, gets two representatives, meaning Rhode Islanders get roughly twice as much representation per person as Montanans.

Adding more members and ensuring each state got at least five or six members could reduce those inequalities (though the extreme inequalities of the US Senate would remain). Sean Trende of RealClearPolitics argues that a bigger House would be more difficult to gerrymander and would make it easier to draw majority-minority districts to ensure black and Latino communities are represented.

Beyond that, though, it’s not clearly better for constituents to have a closer relationship with a legislator who represents only 100,000 people in a body of nearly 3,000 legislators, than for them to have a somewhat more distant relationship with a House member who, as one among 435, at least has some chance at influence. What’s more, in countries with pure nationwide party-list proportional representation like Denmark, the Netherlands, or Israel, how many people a given politician represents is basically irrelevant. The whole country votes, and seats are divvied up based on how successful each party was nationwide; no member of the parliament has a regional constituency to which to answer, and whose size would thus matter to them.

Countries like Spain, Italy, Sweden, or Norway break themselves up into regional divisions, each of which uses party-list proportional representation; this system makes the number of people each legislator represents more relevant, but they’re still acting as one of five or 10 or more people representing the same area, which pushes up the de facto representation ratio and limits how much they can represent a given group of people.

As a historical side note, the US almost adopted a constitutional provision that, today, would likely require Congress to have 6,489 members. The Congressional Apportionment Amendment was one of the 12 amendments first proposed and passed by Congress in 1789. Ten of those amendments were ratified quickly by the states and became known as the Bill of Rights. The 11th, which delays all congressional pay increases from taking effect until the next term of office, was sent to the states in 1789 but finally ratified in 1992, becoming the 27th Amendment, after lobbying from a UT Austin student named Gregory Watson.

The 12th, the Apportionment Amendment, has languished unratified by the states, apparently by accident. In just the past decade, archival research has suggested that Connecticut ratified the amendment in 1790 without Congress noticing, meaning it should have taken effect upon Vermont’s ratification in 1791. But the Supreme Court in 2012 rejected an appeal to get the amendment recognized, and so, despite apparently going through all the steps to become part of the Constitution in 1791, it remains unratified.

The amendment read:

After the first enumeration required by the first article of the Constitution, there shall be one Representative for every thirty thousand, until the number shall amount to one hundred, after which the proportion shall be so regulated by Congress, that there shall be not less than one hundred Representatives, nor less than one Representative for every forty thousand persons, until the number of Representatives shall amount to two hundred; after which the proportion shall be so regulated by Congress, that there shall not be less than two hundred Representatives, nor more than one Representative for every fifty thousand persons.

That last clause contains what most scholars of the Apportionment Amendment consider a scrivener’s error: “nor more than one Representative for every fifty thousand persons” should read “nor less than one Representative for every fifty thousand persons”; the screw-up is technical, but this piece has a good explanation of what happened (it involves the secretary of the Senate misunderstanding a direction).

If the amendment were to be ratified today by another 27 states and become part of the Constitution, with the scrivener’s error corrected, then the House of Representatives would have to ensure at least one representative for every 50,000 people, or about 6,489 representatives total.

Some commentators have embraced ratification of the amendment as the best way to increase the House’s size: It doesn’t require congressional action, after all. But the Capitol would probably need to invest in some folding chairs.