“Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons. The actual Enumeration shall be made within three Years after the first Meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent Term of ten Years, in such Manner as they shall by Law direct. The Number of Representatives shall not exceed one for every thirty Thousand, but each State shall have at Least one Representative…”
— U.S. Constitution, Article I, section 2, clause 3
“Representatives shall be apportioned among the several States according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each State, excluding Indians not taxed. But when the right to vote at any election for the choice of electors for President and Vice President of the United States, Representatives in Congress, the Executive and Judicial officers of a State, or the members of the Legislature thereof, is denied to any of the male inhabitants of such State, being twenty-one years of age, and citizens of the United States, or in any way abridged, except for participation in rebellion, or other crime, the basis of representation therein shall be reduced in the proportion which the number of such male citizens shall bear to the whole number of male citizens twenty-one years of age in such State.”
— U.S. Constitution, Amendment XIV, section 2
The Constitution provides for proportional representation in the U.S. House of Representatives and the seats in the House are apportioned based on state population according to the constitutionally mandated Census. Representation based on population in the House was one of the most important components of the Federal Constitutional Convention of 1787.
The American Revolution was, in part, a contest about the very definition of representation. In England, the House of Commons represented every British subject regardless of whether the subject could actually vote for its membership. In this sense, most people living in areas under British rule—including North America—were only “virtually represented” in Parliament. American colonists, who were used to controlling their local affairs in the directly-elected colonial legislatures, lacked a voice in Parliament and resented the British policies imposed on them. Thus, they rallied behind the now familiar motto: “No taxation without representation!”
After the war, the founders struggled to design a system of government to better represent the inhabitants of the new country than did the British model which once governed them. The Articles of Confederation created the first national congress to represent the interests of the states: each state would appoint between two and seven delegates to the congress, and each state delegation would have one vote.
The Constitutional Convention addressed multiple concerns in the process of designing the new Congress. The first was the relationship of the least populous states to the most populous. The battle between big and small states colored most of the Convention and nearly ended hopes of creating a national government. Pennsylvania Delegate Benjamin Franklin summed up the disagreement: “If a proportional representation takes place, the small States contend that their liberties will be in danger. If an equality of votes is to be put in its place, the large States say their money will be in danger. When a broad table is to be made, and the edges of planks do not fit the artist takes a little from both, and makes a good joint.” The “good joint” that emerged from weeks of stalemate was called the “Great Compromise” and created a bicameral legislature with a House, where membership was determined by state population, and a Senate, where each state had two seats regardless of population. The compromise enabled the Convention, teetering on the brink of dissolution, to continue.
The Convention determined that a Census of the population conducted every 10 years would enable the House to adjust the distribution of its Membership on a regular basis. The method, however, proved controversial. Southern delegates argued that their slaves counted in the population, yielding them more Representatives. Northern delegates countered that slaves were property and should not be counted at all. The result was the notorious “Three-Fifths Compromise,” where slaves were counted as three-fifths of a free person. Having originated in tax policy, this rule was defended during the Convention as a necessary compromise given the “peculiar” state of slaves as both property and “moral” individuals subject to criminal law. Virginia’s James Madison wrote in Federalist 54 that the reasoning appeared “to be a little strained in some points” but “fully reconciles me to the scale of representation, which the Convention have established.”
Representation was also linked to taxation. Before federal income taxes or tariffs, the states contributed to the national government with local taxes, often flat poll taxes on each citizen. Since constitutional framers had to provide for the funding of the new government, they debated the proper relationship between representation and taxation. Several delegates argued that geographic size or useable farmland were better measures of state wealth than mere population. Delegates, however, settled on proportional contributions based on population and, by extension, the number of Members in the House of Representatives. Large states, with more human capital, should contribute more revenue to the national government and also have more seats in the legislature as a result. This fulfilled the promise of the American Revolution: taxation with representation.
The 14th Amendment to the Constitution, ratified after the Civil War, began to remedy the “original sin” of the Constitution, and ordered the Census to fully count every individual regardless of skin color. While it was a step in the right direction, it did little to ease the country’s racial tensions. Moreover, instead of directly providing for the enfranchisement of African Americans, the amendment stipulated that only males over the age of 21 could not be discriminated against when voting unless they had participated in rebellion against the Union or “other crime.” Women were not enfranchised until 1920, when the 19th Amendment stipulated that “the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged . . . on account of sex.” In 1971, the 26th Amendment enfranchised those 18 years of age and older. The latter amendments, however, did not alter congressional apportionment.
Congress has capped the number of Representatives at 435 since the Apportionment Act of 1911 except for a temporary increase to 437 during the admission of Hawaii and Alaska as states in 1959. As a result, over the last century, congressional districts have more than tripled in size—from an average of roughly 212,000 inhabitants after the 1910 Census to about 710,000 inhabitants following the 2010 Census. Each state’s congressional delegation changes as a result of population shifts, with states either gaining or losing seats based on population. While the number of House Members for each state is determined according to a statistical formula in federal law, each state is then responsible for designing the shape of its districts so long as it accords with various provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which seeks to protect racial minorities’ voting and representation rights.
For Further Reading
U.S. Census Bureau. U.S. Department of Commerce. “About Congressional Apportionment.” http://www.census.gov/population/apportionment/about/.
Eagles, Charles W. Democracy Delayed: Congressional Reapportionment and Urban–Rural Conflict in the 1920s. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2010.
Farrand, Max, ed. The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787. Rev. ed. 4 vols. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1937.
Madison, James, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay. The Federalist Papers. New York: Penguin Books, 1987.
Reid, John Phillip. The Concept of Representation in the Age of the American Revolution. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989.
Rossiter, Clinton. 1787: The Grand Convention. New York: Macmillan, 1966.
Tate, Katherine. Black Faces in the Mirror: African Americans and Their Representatives in the U.S. Congress. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003.