Thursday, September 17, 2009

What if Obama Won the Electoral College 1265-599?*


There is a great article in the New York Times today that discusses a case being brought forth in a federal court in Mississippi that calls foul on the representative disparities in Congress. On the one hand, the entire state of Wyoming is one district with 523,000 people, but a district like Nevada's 3rd contains nearly a million people. Does that disparity mean that one district is more represented than the other? Those bringing the case think so. They propose that the House be expanded to at least 932 seats, but that 1761 seats would better fulfill the one person, one vote principle.

1761 seats!?!

FHQ is plenty satisfied with 435 House elections plus an additional 33 or 34 Senate elections every two years, but why not add 1300 more? More elections would be great for business. In all seriousness, this has been an ongoing issue since the number of seats was held at 435. Will this case go anywhere? It's doubtful but it does raise an interesting question:

We strive to adhere to the one person, one vote ideal within states but not across states. Why? It is ironic that this case is coming through Mississippi. When I was in a Southern politics class with University of Georgia political scientist Charles Bullock a few years back, we were discussing both how much leeway states get in drawing districts and how much easier that process has become with geographic information systems. And the example he used was Mississippi. Typically, the courts allow states wiggle room of about 5% in terms of the populations in their allotted congressional districts. In a hypothetical state with one million people and two congressional districts you could "get away" with having one district with 512,500 people and the other having 487,500 people for example. [Well, given GIS, that probably isn't realistic as long as the districts are compact and relatively competitive. But you get the point.] So, there's some leeway. As I recall, though, Mississippi didn't just get their four districts down to within 5%. In at least two cases they got them to within 5 people. And none of the four districts had anymore than 14 or 15 people more than any of the other three.

Given that matters can be so precise within the states, then, why is it that we don't insist upon this equality of representation across states? It is curious. Mainly, I'd say that the root of this issue finds its origin at the outset of the republic itself when these matters of representation and the alignment of Congress were bitterly debated. The result was the compromise that gave the US a Senate with an equal number of members from each state and a House with its membership determined by population. In the same way, 435 is a compromise of sorts. It isn't perfect.

...but it does give us enough electoral votes to track.

Hat tip to Rick Hasen at the Election Law Blog for the link.

*Where did those numbers come from? Well, there's no way of accurately knowing how these new districts would be allocated. I could probably figure it out, but used a shorthand calculation instead. Obama won about 68% of the electoral votes last November. After adding in the 100 senatorial electoral votes plus Washington DC's three to the 1761, FHQ found that 68% of 1864 is 1265. Now, that would be fun to track in 2012.

Oh and in the interest of continued fun, I should add that under the 932 seat scenario, there would have been 1035 electoral votes. Using similar math to the above, Obama would have won 702-333.

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Arbitrista said...

Such a move would also almost entirely eliminate the small state bias in the electoral college.

AKReport said...

well, california is an intresting case hispanic numbers are rising as white numbers are droping (leaving to othe states) California will become more hispanic then white in about 20 years

Matt said...

Josh asks: "why is it that we don't insist upon this equality of representation across states?"

The answer has nothing to do with any compromise. It's because House seats are only assigned at the state level, and can't cross state boundaries. The only way to make population really equivalent between CDs is to allow districts to span states - this of course will never happen, but since it won't, there is no way to guarantee equivalent populations with discrete numbers of districts. (Hey, we had delegates with 1/2 a vote, why not congressmen).

The other big issue is that increasing the number of congressmen in no way solves the problem - it makes it better, but it doesn't solve it. On what legal grounds can a court rule that, differences of 200,000 are unconstitutional, but 100,000 are OK? Sounds like a pretty frivolous lawsuit to me, since there is no remedy which makes any sense.

Robert said...

All we need it 1000+ more House members looking for publicity. No thanks. Let's keep it at 435 members.

Josh Putnam said...

Good points, all.

The small state bias would cease to exist, plain and simple. It would have to to make room for all the new urban districts. If you use Wyoming's population (and thus district) as a baseline and try to fit every district, nationwide, to around that population (approx. 525,000) that would require only an additional 80 seats or so (around 510), so I don't know where all the extra seats are coming from.

As Matt points out, most of this is because state boundaries would prevent certain divisions from being possible. Still, adding 400-1200 additional seats to rectify the issue seems superfluous.

...but I haven't done all the math.

And yeah, as Rick Hasen said in the link, this case likely has absolutely no chance of going anywhere. Fun to think about, though.

Jack said...

But then how could you handle a state like South Dakota, with a population of about 800,000? No way to divide that into districts anywhere close to 525,000. So the extra districts are needed if we want to equalize everything.

Robert said...

Matt and Jack,

An easier solution would be to just redraw state boundaries every 10 years on the basis of the census. Today you live in South Dakota; tomorrow your are incorporated into Minnesota. To get politics out of the mix, you subcontract state lines and Congressional districts to someone like UPS or FedEX who develop meaningful territories for delivery routes. OR you could carve out virtual Congressional districts that bring together like-minded constituents from across the country so every citizen who has at least 500,000 constituents with similar beliefs will have a representative in Congress. You could subcontract these divisions to Netflix or Of course, Josh, this would mean electronic voting and turning every public library into polling stations for those without direct computer access. Each library computer would need to be equipped with a card scanner so you could use your Master Card, Visa or Discover to verify citizenship. Or have I adapted too many of Newt Gingrich's ideas and slipped over the edge?

Josh Putnam said...

You're right. That's where the race to the top (in terms of the number of seats) begins, I think. You start looking for and incorporating those exceptions and then suddenly you're up to 1761 House seats. The standard district in that case would be made up of a shade under 175,000 citizens (given a total US population of about 307 million people).

To me, though, that is a lot of extra seats to get to that goal. It is funny that I was covering malapportionment in my American government classes today. I mentioned this case and then asked the classes how many seats they thought it would take to even districts out nationwide. I think my first class was still asleep. All I could get out of them was, "25." My second class came up with, "a bunch." When asked to define a bunch the answer was, "about 300." Not too far off from what would be needed to get to that 932 figure. Both classes were astounded when I brought out the 1761 number.

Other than mentioning "metrics" -- an oft revisited concept in his Getzen Lecture at UGA -- I think you covered most of the Gingrich bases.

I'll have more on the former Speaker in a separate post shortly.