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Tuesday, October 30, 2018

The Districts Are Too Damn Big

Lee Drutman at The Washington Monthly points out that the House has been at 435 members for more than a century.  After the next census, the average district size will be about 765,000.
Look across the globe, and you’ll see that the United States is an outlier. In the United Kingdom (population 66 million), the House of Commons has 650 members, one for every 101,000 Brits. Germany’s Bundestag has 709 members, one for every 116,000 Germans. Only India (population 1.3 billion) has more constituents per representative in its lower house, the Lok Sabha. But in India, individual state governments have more autonomy than in the U.S., making the national legislature less important.
Political scientists have documented two serious consequences to overly large districts: lower trust and higher inequality. The first is intuitive: the more constituents, the less likely it is that citizens will have direct contact with their representatives. If representatives feel distant and unhelpful, so will government. Across democracies, there is a correlation: the larger a nation’s districts, the less overall confidence its citizens have in government.
As for inequality:
One consequence of House districts being so big is that they are more heterogeneous. This means that there are few districts where poor voters add up as a pivotal voting bloc. The political scientist Karen Long Jusko estimates that even if the poorest 33 percent of Americans voted as a unified bloc, they could still only elect their preferred representative in 5 percent of districts. In France, by contrast, a third of the districts have a low-income majority. “[T]he size of a U.S. congressional district is much larger—by a factor of almost seven—than the average French district,” Jusko notes. “This undoubtedly contributes to the heterogeneity of American congressional districts, and dilutes the electoral power of low-income voters.” Meanwhile, she finds a consistent pattern: the more electoral power poor voters have across countries (and across U.S. states), the higher the level of government social spending.