Apportionment FAQ

What is apportionment, and how is it different from redistricting?

Apportionment is the process of dividing the 435 seats of the House of Representatives among the 50 states. The seats are divvied up every 10 years based on the population data obtained through the census. The process is required by Article 1, Section II of the Constitution. Redistricting is how each state, given a number of members of the House of Representatives, draws the members’ districts within the states. In 45 states, redistricting is done by the state legislature. Arizona, Hawaii, Idaho, New Jersey, and Washington assign commissions to make the decisions.

Since the 2000 census shows that every state gained population, how come 10 states end up losing House seats, and eight states end up gaining them?

Because the House of Representatives has not increased the number of members from 435 since 1912 (except for a temporary increase of two members when Alaska and Hawaii became states). According to the Constitution, each state is guaranteed one representative; that means there are only 385 seats available to be divided in various ways among the states. So New York, which experienced only a small population gain in the last 10 years is losing two House seats, for a total of 29 members, while Texas, which has surpassed New York to be the second most populous state after California, will gain two seats for a total of 32.

Is the number of residents of the United States a different number from that used in congressional apportionment?

Yes, it’s higher. The U.S. Census Bureau found that there are 281,421,906 residents of the United States. Because residents of the District of Columbia do not have a voting member of the House, their population, 572,059 is subtracted from the resident figure for apportionment purposes. But the 574,330 federal employees and their dependents living overseas, who can be “assigned” to a home state, while not counted in the resident census are added to the apportionment figure. So the apportionment population is 281,424,177.

Is everyone happy with this number?

North Carolina is happy because it has so many military and other federal employees living overseas. This helped it get a new House seat. Utah is not. It has few federal employees overseas but a lot of privately employed missionaries. Had they had been counted, Utah would have gotten the seat. So Utah is suing the federal government asking that private citizens living abroad be counted in the census. The Census Bureau, under congressional mandate, is already looking into a process by which to count private citizens overseas.

How many people does each House member represent?

For 2000 it is an average 646,952, the highest in history. The ratio of population per representative has increased following each census. The 14th Amendment, ratified in 1868, abolished the counting of slaves as three-fifths of a person. So in 1870 there were 292 members of the House who represented an average of 130,533 people. In 1890 there were 356 members for every 173,901 people, in 1900 there were 386 members for every 193,167 people. Of course, since the Constitution originally mandated 30,000 people for each representative, if we had continued to follow that formula, today there would be about 9,000 members of the House of Representatives.

How come there is no pressure to increase the size of the House? 

Do you want there to be 9,000 United States representatives? Increasing the size would only make House functioning more unwieldy and dilute the power of each member. And the public is not clamoring for a more intimate member ratio.

Are all House seats created equal?

No. While the 646,952 is an average number, the actual number varies from state to state. (Although within states districts are supposed to be as close to equal as possible.) For example, Wyoming the state with the smallest population–495,304–gets one member while Montana’s one, or “at-large” member, represents 905,316 people.

What is the formula by which the apportionment is decided?

It involves square roots, which started giving Explainer unpleasant flashbacks to taking the SAT. For a detailed explanation, click here.

Next questions?

Explainer thanks Karen Mills of the U.S. Census Bureau, Chip Walker of the House Subcommittee on the Census, and Tom Brunell of SUNY-Binghamton.