The U.S. Constitution provides for a system of proportional representation in the U.S. House of Representatives, in which each state is granted a specific number of Members based on that state’s population. Each Member represents one congressional district. This ensures that although big states like California might have more congressional districts, and therefore more seats in the House, each U.S. Representative has a relatively similar number of constituents.
Every 10 years, the United States conducts a new Census to calculate America’s total population. Using the results from the Census, states receive new apportionment estimates and redraw their districts accordingly. Because the total number of seats in the House is capped at 435, some states will gain seats in the House, while others will lose seats.
Each congressional district is drawn by the individual states. Though the process for dividing and drawing congressional districts has changed over time, the unique nature of each district will often dictate the legislative agenda of the Members of Congress elected to represent them.
Members typically seek committee assignments that align with their districts’ interests and frequently return home to meet with voters. Alongside the doctrine of proportional representation, the House is also defined by its two-year election cycle in which every Representative must stand for re-election.
This Edition for Educators focuses on congressional districts and how their unique needs influence the Members who represent them. Perhaps as Massachusetts Speaker Tip O’Neill famously liked to say “All politics is local.”
These broad profiles of each Congress feature lists of Members by district taken from the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress. These can be found as PDF files under “Member Information.”
Election Statistics, 1920 to Present
The Office of the Clerk publishes the official vote for November federal elections. Election results are listed by district.
Winifred Claire Stanley
Following the 1940 Census, New York stood to lose two seats in Congress. The Republican Party searched for an effective short–term Representative to win the state’s At–Large seat slated for elimination. Once redistricting occurred, their ideal candidate would choose not to run against a higher–ranking Republican in the following election. Winifred Stanley, by then a successful assistant district attorney, agreed to the plan.
A court–ordered redistricting that carved a new Brooklyn congressional district out of Shirley Chisholm's New York City Bedford–Stuyvesant neighborhood convinced her to run for Congress. Upon winning election, she was initially assigned to the Committee on Agriculture, a decision she appealed directly to House Speaker John McCormack of Massachusetts. McCormack told her to be a “good soldier,” at which point Chisholm brought her complaint to the House Floor. She was reassigned to the Veterans' Affairs Committee which, though not one of her top choices, was more relevant to her district's makeup. "There are a lot more veterans in my district than trees," she quipped.
Redistricting and “Deracialization”: Opportunities and Limits
The passage and implementation of the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act (and its extensions) changed how districts were drawn. The legislation, bolstered by several court decisions, led to the creation of several majority-black population districts. This essay from Black Americans in Congress, 1870–2007, discusses the role of redistricting in creating majority-minority districts.
Robert P. Griffin’s Traveling Office
Members of Congress have always conducted business both in Washington and back in their districts. In the 1950s, Representative Robert Griffin of Michigan decided it would be more efficient to purchase a trailer with his own money, in order to work while he traveled.
Representative Frank Smith of Mississippi
On June 5, 1962, incumbent Congressman Frank Ellis Smith lost to fellow incumbent Representative Jamie Whitten in the Democratic primary for Mississippi’s 2nd District, after redistricting in 1962 merged their two jurisdictions.
“Any Good Chief Knows Their District”
Members aren't the only ones serving their district. Congressional staff does too. California Representative Sam Farr’s Chief of Staff Rochelle Dornatt reflects on her efforts to connect with the district back home.
The bibliography of standard reference volumes highlights several excellent resources for general research into the House of Representatives. Among these, the most useful for research into congressional districts are Kenneth C. Martis’s volumes: U.S. Congressional Districts, 1789–1983 and The Historical Atlas of Political Parties in the United States Congress, 1789–1989.
Houston Bros. to Cannon
Hoping to bolster Representative Benjamin G. Humphrey’s request for a spot on the River and Harbors Committee, the Vicksburg division of Houston Bros. Mills & Yards sent Speaker Joseph Cannon a letter on Humphreys’s behalf. The city of Vicksburg is situated on the Mississippi River, so Houston Bros. would have relied on the river to ship its lumber. Having a Representative who would communicate their concerns to Congress was critical for the district.
The Unlucky Seventh
President Abraham Lincoln served a single term in the U.S. House of Representatives, representing the Illinois Seventh Congressional District. But Lincoln wasn’t the only Member to represent this district and experience tragedy.
Absorbing Constituent Needs
A Member of Congress represents and assists constituents. So when a Representative served a district known for one of the largest natural sponge markets in the world . . . well, that Member advocated for the absorbent product.
Library of Congress Geography & Map Division
The helpful librarians in the Geography & Map Division maintain a large collection of maps and atlases. Among these are several maps showcasing historical election districts.
This is part of a series of blog posts for educators highlighting the resources available on History, Art & Archives of the U.S. House of Representatives. For lesson plans, fact sheets, glossaries, and other materials for the classroom, see the website's Education section.Follow @USHouseHistory