Apportionment, and subsequently reapportionment and redistricting based on population, are significant processes that affect the United States Congress. Specifically, reapportionment and redistricting play roles in shaping the House of Representatives, where representation is based upon population. This process ultimately affects nearly all members of the House, incumbents and challengers, Democrats and Republicans, and senior members as well as freshman. These processes also cause secondary events that also affect Congress, such as gerrymandering, oddly shaped districts, litigation, and calls for reform.
The original process for the apportionment of seats within the House of Representatives was laid out in the Constitution. Article I Section 2 of the Constitution states, “Representatives…shall be apportioned among the several States…according to their respective numbers” (Davis 81). The Constitution further stated specifically that enumeration was to be the method for determining the respective populations of the states. Thus the census is taken every ten years and seats are reapportioned based on these populations (Davis 83).
Apportionment of the seats in the first Congress was explicitly stated in the Constitution as each state was assigned a certain number of representatives. Also included in the Constitution was the requirement that each representative account for at least 33,000 people. However this was never an issue as the population continued to grow and the number of representatives continued to grow with it(Jacobson 7). After the census of 1910, the previous method of continually apportioning new representatives for new and growing states became unwieldy and difficult. Large population increases and shifts would have drastically increased and altered the representation of many states within the House of Representatives. Thus, after the 1930 census, Congress placed a limit on the number of representatives at 435 (Jacobson 7-8).
As a result of limiting the amount of representatives within the House of Representatives, the census and the process of reapportionment have become more influential upon Congress. The limit on the number of Representatives causes representatives to be apportioned in states with increasing and decreasing populations. Thus as people move from the Midwest to the South and West, the states in each region either lose or gain representatives. Consequently power in the Congress shifts, thus attracting and keeping residents becomes important for states to have representation, and thus get legislation favorable to the area passed (Jacobson 8).
The census, which is the basis for reapportionment has also been scrutinized. It has been argued that the census under represents certain groups. Minorities and those living in low-income urban areas are traditionally undercounted by the census. These individuals traditionally vote democrat. It has also been suggested that illegal immigrants can alter the reapportionment data, influencing the result. It has been suggested that statistical sampling would provide a more accurate number of individuals living in a certain area. Using statistical sampling has been rejected as not complying with the provision of the Constitution that requires “enumeration.” Thus, currently, sampling is not allowed to determine how seats in the House of Representatives will be apportioned (Davis 82).
As seats in the House of Representatives are reapportioned, the process of redistricting must follow. While similar to reapportionment, redistricting involves the process of redrafting district lines within states that have gained or lost seats through reapportionment. The process of drawing the districts is done by the state legislatures. There are multiple restrictions that have developed to guide the state legislatures in this process. One rule that guides state legislatures is that the districts must be drawn with nearly equal districts. Prior to this districts could vary widely in size. Often rural residents were over represented, affecting those elected to the House (Jacobson 8). Another rule is that districts must only elect one member (Smith and Roberts 57). Laws regarding civil rights and the Voting Rights Act disallowed diluting minority voters through many district. The implementation of this led to the creation of districts where the minority was the majority (Jacobson 13). Further, districts must be contiguous. When designing district boundaries state legislatures must follow these basic rules.
In practice, the process of redistricting and the rules that must be followed have some unavoidable consequences that affect the members and the makeup of the House of Representatives. For example, when a state loses or gains a seat, all the districts must be redrawn to keep all the districts equal population. When a state loses a district in particular, an incumbent will lose a seat, potentially leaving that person without a district to run in, or creating potential contentious elections between two incumbents. The creation of districts with a minority-majority, coupled with the rule that districts must be contiguous also creates some oddly shaped district. This creates districts comprised of residents without common characteristics (Jacobson 8-13). This can make it difficult to campaign in a region, or make it difficult for congressmen to be responsive to their constituents. Due to the rules that accompany redistricting, various unavoidable consequences result that has varying effects on the House of Representatives..
The nature of redistricting also influences who runs and how they run their campaign. The varying nature of these districts as far as the age, income, and ethnicity makes each race different. Thus in these ever-changing districts, party control is not as strong in influencing who runs. These elections can often present the candidate with a district where they can have the most success running a local campaign. This changes who runs and the nature of the campaign (Jacobson 18).
While redistricting has a number of rules to structure the process, different actors will attempt to influence the redistricting process in order to further their goals. The major way in which this is done is through political gerrymandering. Redistricting is done by State Legislatures who often have political, partisan agendas. The point of political gerrymandering is to concentrate voters for a party so as to maximize potential victories (Jacobson 8). Political gerrymandering has also been used as one factor leading to the incumbency effect, whereby politicians can hopefully remain in districts that are drawn to maximize their chances of reelection (Janda, Berry, and Goldman 331). This is a complex process that often results in interplay between any numbers of factors that make carrying out political gerrymandering difficult.
As with any political controversy, gerrymandering, both political and racial, has been the cause of a large number of litigation. Prior to the implementation of the Voting Rights Act, racial gerrymandering occurred to dilute black political representation. Thornberg v. Gingles eliminated all racial gerrymandering, even unintentional gerrymandering (Jacobson 13). While racial gerrymandering has been eliminated in the courts, political gerrymandering has held up in a number of court decisions. Hunt v. Cromartie allowed race to be considered in redistricting if it was for partisan purposes, while League of United American Citizens v. Perry held that it was legal to redistrict between census (Jacobson 12, 14). This was especially important because it allowed a party that had gained control of a State Legislature to redistrict before the census to create districts beneficial to the party. Overall, political gerrymandering has been challenged often, it has however been difficult to prove political gerrymandering, and thus it still occurs.
In addition to legislation challenging gerrymandering and the redistricting process, call for reform have come from a variety of groups. Most reformers wish to limit the influence parties play in the redistricting process. There are a variety of suggestions for reform that include having a independent commission redistrict states when it is necessary, or forcing groups that identify with each other, or share common characteristics to remain in the same districts. It is thought that measures such as this will generate competitive elections, where money and power are less important while quality representatives would have a better shot at victory.
The reapportionment and redistricting processes are import ones. They have far reaching effects that affect Congress greatly. The events themselves cause gerrymandering, litigation, and calls for reform. These processes will continue to generate much interest within Congress and politics in general as long as they remain process that can be influenced.
Davis, Sue. Corwin and Peltason’s understanding the Constitution. Belmont, CA: Thomas Wadsworth, 2008.
Jacobson, Gary C. The Politics of Congressional Elections. New York: Pearson Longman, 2009
Janda, K, Berry J, and Goldman J. The Challenge of Democracy. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2008.
Smith, Steven S., Roberts, Jason M., Vander Wielen, Ryan J. The American Congress. New York:Cambridge University Press, 2009.