Congressional Apportionment: Calculating House Seats

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What is Congressional apportionment? How is apportionment of House seats by state calculated?

Congressional apportionment is the method for calculating how many representatives each state has. It is based on the population as defined by the census.

Read more about the Congressional apportionment of House seats by state.

Who Are the Representatives?

Now, let’s turn to the specific branches of government and their components to get a fuller picture of how the system of checks and balances was designed to function. The House of Representatives is the lower house of the national legislature, with members apportioned within each state by population—the higher the state’s population, the more representatives it has.

There are few eligibility requirements for election to the House. A member merely needs to:

  • Be age 25 or older
  • Be a resident of the state they represent
  • Have been a citizen for at least seven years prior to their election
  • Hold no other office during their tenure in the chamber

Beyond these requirements, anyone is eligible to run and serve (although the House retains the right to expel members by a two-thirds vote). 

Because membership was to be determined by population, the larger states would naturally hold sway in the House. That power would be checked, however, by the Senate, where the smaller states would dominate. The House would tend to have the upper hand, however, because the Constitution mandated that all revenue bills originate from the lower chamber. This gave the House the decisive power of the purse.

Congressional Apportionment

A key question in drafting the Constitution was how large to make the House of Representatives. If the number of representatives was too small, it would be unrepresentative of the entire nation. But if it was too large, the body would be chaotic and dysfunctional; each representative would only represent small numbers of voters, making it too easy for factions to control members and dominate national politics. Congressional apportionment was key.

The key, then, was to set the number of representatives (or, more specifically, the ratio of representatives to voters) at the right level. The Constitution called for a House of 65 members. While critics objected that this number was too small, the Constitution made it clear that this figure was to be temporary. It called for the House to be enlarged just three years after the first decennial census of 1790, as would happen every ten years thereafter, creating a recurring process for Congressional apportionment.

Moreover, the ratio of representatives to voters was to be fixed at one for every 30,000. This, too, was based on sound practice. The British Constitution, held in high regard by the Framers, had roughly the same apportionment for the House of Commons. In fact, the House of Representatives was an improvement on this model, as it contained no property or wealth qualifications for either representatives or voters (beyond what may have been required by the individual states).

Also, the ratio of Congressional apportionment in the various state legislatures was sometimes very great (one representative for 40,000-50,000 voters) or very small (one representative for just a few hundred voters). In either case, the federal ratio of 30,000 was well in line with longstanding governing norms for Congressional apportionment of House seats by state.

(Shortform note: The Reapportionment Act of 1929 changed this formula, fixing the total number of representatives at 435. As the national population grew, so did that of the average House district. Today, the average House district has over 700,000 constituents.)

The People’s Chamber

The House was to be directly elected by the voters of the state, with voters meeting the same eligibility requirements that they did for state legislative elections. It also represented the people, not the states. Thus, the House was the body of government most directly connected to the sentiments of the people.

Members were to be elected every two years, a shorter term than other federal offices:

  • The president’s term was for four years
  • Senators were to serve for six years
  • Federal judges (including justices of the Supreme Court) would serve for life, provided they maintained good behavior on the bench
Congressional Apportionment: Calculating House Seats

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Rina Shah

An avid reader for as long as she can remember, Rina’s love for books began with The Boxcar Children. Her penchant for always having a book nearby has never faded, though her reading tastes have since evolved. Rina reads around 100 books every year, with a fairly even split between fiction and non-fiction. Her favorite genres are memoirs, public health, and locked room mysteries. As an attorney, Rina can’t help analyzing and deconstructing arguments in any book she reads.

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