PAGING JAMES MADISON

What would happen to the electoral college if Congressional districts were apportioned evenly?

Obsession
2016
Obsession
2016

The electoral college, usually an obscure quirk of the US political system, has drawn new scrutiny this year.

Because Donald Trump lost to Hillary Clinton in the popular vote, yet was the clear victor in the ultimately definitive electoral college, the strange, disproportionate nature of electoral college votes is under attack.

There are calls to abolish the electoral college altogether. But there’s another option for reform, one which would address both the imbalance of the electoral college and the even more pernicious skewing of the House of Representatives.

Eliminating the cap on the size of the House—fixed at 435 since 1929—and allowing it to rise with the population would achieve true proportionate representation in the House, and give every citizen’s vote equal weight in the outcome of presidential elections.

In the electoral college, every state gets a number of electoral college votes equal to the number of elected officials it sends to the House and Senate. Each state has two senators plus at least one House representative, for a minimum of three votes in the electoral college. (The District of Columbia gets three electoral votes, as well).

Unlike the Senate, where every state is equally represented, the House is designed to distribute power according to population. This stems from a decision by the country’s founders to guarantee each state at least one House seat, regardless of population, and from the subsequent 1929 law fixing the House seats at a maximum of 435, the size it reached in 1910.

But what might have made sense in 1910 doesn’t anymore, as the nation’s population has grown disproportionately in some states. As a result of the cap, the smallest states have far more say in both the House and the electoral college than their population should dictate. According to an analysis by Quartz’s Chris Groskopf, citizens of Wyoming, the least populous state, have 3.7 times the electoral power of those in California, with other sparsely states similarly advantaged.

By fixing the maximum size of every House district equal to the size of the smallest district—currently the entire state of Wyoming and its 563,626 residents, according to the 2010 census—proportionality would be returned to the House. Under this system, called the Wyoming Rule, the House would grow to 545 representatives, with California gaining 13 new seats. Texas (nine new seats) and New York (seven) would also be among the big winners.

A larger House would take some getting used to, but it shouldn’t be too unwieldy. There are 513 members of Brazil’s chamber of deputies, 545 members of India’s lower house, and 650 members of the UK’s House of Commons.

Significantly, no US state loses a seat in this plan.

Notably, while this increase in House seats would have given Clinton more electors, it would not have given her enough to have changed the outcome of the Nov. 8 election.

It would, however, revive a sound idea from James Madison, who helped design the original system. He had proposed a constitutional amendment that would have guaranteed an increase in the size of the House to keep up with population growth. It wasn’t adopted.

It’s not just the traditional Republican-leaning states in the West that benefit from the current skew. Small liberal states also have too much weight, like Vermont, with 3.2 times the voting power of California, and Rhode Island (2.6 times).

Rebalancing the House would be healthy for lots of reasons. Among them, urban areas would finally have equal weight, and federal dollars might start flowing in proportion to where more people live.

And while small states would lose some clout, as long as they all send two senators to Washington, they would still have an outsized say in government.

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