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How to Fix the House of Representatives

Thanks to gerrymandering, Congress’ lower chamber is a distorted representation of the American people. Here’s a remedy.

Evelyn Hockstein/The Washington Post/Getty
Anti-gerrymandering protesters outside the Supreme Court.

In 2021, every state will use the results of the 2020 census to redraw the maps of American political power. Some states give independent commissions or nonpartisan officials the power to redraw their state legislative maps and congressional districts. But in the majority of states, that duty falls to partisan state legislatures. Hyper-partisanship will exert a stronger pull than usual across the country as it rewrites its political boundaries this time around: In all but 12 states, the legislature and the governorship are controlled by a single party.

Some Republican-led states spent the past decade locked in legal warfare with liberal activists and civil-rights groups that fought their tilted redistricting maps in court. But the next ten years will look much different. In 2019, the Supreme Court ruled in Rucho v. Common Cause that federal courts no longer had a role to play in partisan-gerrymandering cases, leaving the problem in the hands of the elected branches that caused it. The ruling left residents in some states with few or no options to ensure that voters pick their lawmakers and not the other way around.

The last decade shows how partisan gerrymandering can lead to less democratic accountability, encourage radicalization among House members, and hamstring the ability of Congress to govern. Alas, Congress can’t do much to prevent state lawmakers from drawing themselves into perennially safe seats or locking opposition parties out of workable majorities. But it could eliminate gerrymandering—whether partisan, racial, or otherwise—in the House of Representatives with a simple act of legislation. By adopting proportional representation, Congress could ensure that the people’s house always actually represents the people.

Under the current system, many Americans’ votes for House candidates are essentially wasted. California, thanks to its size, provides the clearest example. In 2020, Democratic House candidates received roughly 11 million votes, or 66.2 percent of the statewide total, while their Republican counterparts received roughly 5.6 million votes, or 33.7 percent. But those proportions aren’t reflected in the statewide delegation: Democratic candidates ultimately won 43 of the state’s 53 House seats, or roughly 79 percent of the available total.

That difference of eight or nine seats effectively allowed Democrats to keep control of the House in 2020. California draws its congressional districts by nonpartisan commission, so gerrymandering didn’t play a role in the outcome. Just as the Electoral College effectively freezes millions of Americans in deep-red or deep-blue states out of deciding the next president, single-member districts ensure that millions of voters’ ballots don’t actually translate into legislative representation or electoral influence.

The effect can be even more severe in Republican-led states with histories of partisan gerrymandering. In North Carolina, for example, Democratic House candidates received 49.96 percent of the statewide vote this year and Republicans received 49.41 percent. Despite that narrow Democratic majority, North Carolina’s House delegation will consist of eight Republicans and five Democrats. It’s worth noting that this result came even after North Carolina’s state courts had forced the state legislature to redraw its districts last year to be more competitive. In 2018, Republican candidates received 50.3 percent of the statewide vote but captured ten of the state’s 13 House seats.

The Constitution lays out some basic features for the House: Each state receives a number of seats based on its population, those seats must be filled by elections, and the members who fill those seats serve two-year terms. Beyond that, it’s the job of Congress to structure the rest of the chamber. Single-member districts are currently mandated in federal law by 2 U.S.C. 2c, which requires that each state have “a number of districts equal to the number of Representatives to which such State is so entitled, and Representatives shall be elected only from districts so established, no district to elect more than one Representative.”

It might be hard to imagine the House without single-seat districts. But it wouldn’t be unprecedented. Some states in the early republic used a general-ticket system for electing their House delegations. Under this method, a voter would be able to vote for a candidate for each of the state’s seats in the House rather than just for the candidate in their district. This led to situations where a mere plurality of the electorate could end up choosing an entire state’s congressional delegation. By the 1840s, general-ticket voting in Southern and border states meant that Democrats received an undue share of representatives in the House compared to the Whigs, whose Northern base of power generally used single-member districts.

After considerable debate, Congress passed the Apportionment Act of 1842 to effectively abolish the general-ticket method for House races. It took a few election cycles before the nation adjusted to the requirement: The Democratic-led House voted to seat four state delegations elected by general ticket but rejected a passionate bid by Illinois Representative Stephen Douglas to disavow the 1842 reforms entirely as unconstitutional. Over the years, single-member districts became the unquestioned norm and any derivation from them the strange exception. That mandate itself shows how Congress has acted before to prevent pluralities of voters from locking the rest of the electorate out of legislative representation.

So what would proportional representation look like in practice? Congress could take a few different paths after careful study and deliberation. In 2018, for example, The New York Times backed the use of multi-member districts to elect House members. Voters would cast ballots to elect three or five representatives from their districts on proportional grounds, thus ensuring that the minority in that district would still receive some representation. Another option would be to treat each state as one large multi-member district. Under this model, voters could choose from lists of candidates drawn up by each party or through a variety of methods that influence which members of each party should receive the seats.

Perhaps the most tantalizing model comes from Germany, which shares America’s federalized system of government. When electing members to the Bundestag, the lower house of the national parliament, German voters actually cast two votes. One vote is for a candidate in their local constituency; the other is for a party’s slate of candidates. After the winners in each district are determined, the second group of seats is allocated to ensure that the parties receive a number of seats proportionate to their overall votes. This hybrid model would preserve a measure of geographic representation, especially in large states, while also ensuring that the House’s final composition reflects the overall will of the American people.

Some of these models work even better if Congress increased the number of seats in the House. As more states joined the Union in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and the country’s population grew, Congress did just that by regularly passing Apportionment Acts after each census. That pattern ended after the 1920 census showed that urban Americans outnumbered rural Americans for the first time. Rural lawmakers, fearing the long-term decline of their influence, blocked legislation to add more seats that cycle. In 1929, Congress permanently fixed the number of seats at 435. The average House member now represents a whopping 750,000 Americans, compared to roughly 300,000 Americans when the number was capped. No wonder so many voters don’t feel represented in Congress.

Expanding the House could also take a number of forms. The simplest method would be to simply raise the arbitrary 435-member cap to another arbitrary number, perhaps to 535 or 565. One proposal, called the “Wyoming Rule,” would go a step further. It would adjust the size of the House to ensure that each district contained roughly the same number of constituents as the least populous district. Since some states have just one House seat, that would currently make Wyoming—and its 550,000 inhabitants—the floating benchmark for House representation. This would involve a bit more math than the status quo, but it would also be a straightforward and easily explained reform—the hallmark of any good electoral system.

Changing how the House of Representatives is elected is no small thing. Even though it could be done with a simple majority vote in both chambers and the president’s assent, it would feel more like a constitutional amendment than a mere act of Congress—nor would proportional representation cure all that ails the American body politic. But the last decade, and 2020 in particular, was hardly a stirring example of the House at its finest. And the current Congress could be the last chance to fix things before they get even worse.