Peyton Young, a senior fellow in the Economic Studies program at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., presented a paper on the formula used to apportion seats in Congress at this week’s [Feb. 17] annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) [this paper was revised and published as Brookings Policy Brief #88, “Dividing the House: Why Congress Should Reinstate an Old Reapportionment Formula
The results of the 2000 census will cause shifts in the makeup of Congress and the distribution of seats among the states. In his paper, which is based on the second edition of his book, Fair Representation, with M.L. Balinski, Young argues that the formula used to determine the number of congressional seats awarded to each state is fundamentally flawed and biased toward small states.
The current apportionment method, which has been in place since 1941, was the brainchild of Joseph Hill, a senior official at the Census Bureau, and Edward V. Huntington, a Harvard mathematician. It replaced a long-standing method devised in the 1830s by statesman and orator Daniel Webster. Webster’s method is based on a straightforward rounding procedure, while Hill’s method relies on a complex square-root formula. The vote to replace Webster’s method with Hill’s in 1941 fell almost entirely along party lines, since the change gave one extra seat to the Democrats, who were in the majority.
Young argues that an ideal system for apportioning seats is virtually impossible to create: since each state must receive a whole number of seats, some states will necessarily get more than their fair share of seats and others less. That translates into large differences in district sizes: Rhode Island will have an average district size of less than 525,000, while California’s will be over 639,000.
Using mathematical arguments combined with data from past censuses, Young demonstrates that the current method gives the small states between three and four percent more representation per capita than the large states. Their conclusion remains the same even after setting aside the smallest states that, according to the Constitution, must receive one representative regardless of size.
This year, the apportionment issue is likely to attract increased attention from Congress and the courts. Although it happens that Hill’s and Webster’s methods yield the same distribution of seats this time, this provides Congress with an opportunity to correct future distortions without jeopardizing the seats of current members. A return to Webster’s method would, says Young, come closer to meeting the constitutional standard of one person, one vote than any other known method.
Young delivered his paper to the AAAS conference on Feb. 17 at 9:00 am. The second edition of Fair Representation will be published by the Brookings Institution in March.