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Friday, July 02, 2004

Rep by Pop

Canada just elected a minority government. It did so by splitting its 308 seats in the House of Commons among 4 parties (and one independent) such that no one party has a majority. As important, no two parties that constitute a majority of the seats will be able to form a governing coalition.

The Canadian election was interesting for a number of reasons, not the least of which being the role that the US played in the rhetoric of the Liberal Party. Despite his wish to get closer to the US, Prime Minister Paul Martin scared voters Liberal by warning that the Conservatives would make Canada look like the US. (Presumably he meant to add, “…even more than I will.”) Canadian resentment and foreboding regarding the US are particularly high these days, so once again George W. helped elect a left-leaning government.

But I want to talk about a different issue raised by the Canadian election: those 308 seats.

Despite covering a population ten times the size of Canada’s, the US House of Representatives has a constant membership only 1.4 times the size of Canada’s Parliament. It was not always so. The House has been stuck at 435 members since 1913, when US population was about 97 million. In 1790, the House’s 65 members represented (or rather, misrepresented) a population of about 4 million. Here’s a chart using numbers that I found at the sites of the US Census, the House of Representatives, and the Library of Congress, and then rounded off:

Persons per Rep
4 000 000
97 225 000
293 000 000

In other words, if my district were as thoroughly represented now as it was in 1913, we would have 3 representatives; going by the 1790 ratios, my district would have about 11 representatives instead of the one we have. (Of course, only a small fraction of the population in 1790 actually had the franchise, so if we were maintaining the rate of eligible voters per representative the ratio would be substantially worse.)

Another interesting fact: the single largest state in 1790 was Pennsylvania. It had a population of 434,000. As you can see, this is about 2/3 the size of the average House district today. The average house district today is more than twice as large as the average state was in 1790. Such a state had 5 representatives and 2 senators for a population of 308,000. Today, 308,000 people would merit 0.5 representatives and (on average) about 0.15 senators. The best thing that can be said about this is that the House has become the Senate and the Senate is a throwback.

The average Canadian riding (legislative district) has a population just under 100,000. Representation is far from perfect in Canada, but to match Canada’s ratio, the US House would have to have about 3000 members. It’s hard to imagine, or want, a Congress that size; and even so, a 1/97,000 ratio is still hardly intimate.

So what? Is dilution of representation a problem? Does it have a solution?

That might depend on the theory of representation you like. I am attracted to Iris Marion Young’s account. She has much to say about it in her book Inclusion and Democracy, but I want to focus on the conception of the representative. Whereas many democratic theorists treat representation as one (or both) of delegation (where the representative is just a proxy for the voters; the voters do the thinking and deciding) or trusteeship (where the representative thinks for the voters and acts in their best interests as s/he judges them), Young defends an account of representation as a dynamic dialogue, or rather, a bunch of ongoing, interacting dynamic dialogues where representatives as well as constituents learn to understand and anticipate one another’s opinions and interests. Successful representation depends on a number of factors, among which are two very important ones: that each representative, through these dynamic dialogues, come to know her/his constituents; and that at least some representatives share, not just opinions and interests, but important social perspectives, with broad sections of the population.

Someone representing 673,000 persons (and counting) is simply unable to engage in genuine dialogue with even a small minority of her constituents. Nor are 673,000 persons likely, in today’s climate at least, to engage in genuine dialogue with one another across race, class, religious, and other lines. The representative will likely share the perspective of few of them and be able to predict the reactions of only the most vocal (or wealthy). To make matters worse, thanks to gerrymandering and inter-party logrolling, most seats today are “safe” and not seriously contested. So representatives lack any incentive to mitigate these pathologies. It’s hard to see that the current system can be called representation at all.

Given that the ratio can’t be significantly improved (though it can, and should, be improved somewhat), the best option is to mitigate the pathologies of representation—lack of dialogue, gerrymandering, logrolling, the two-party duopoly, etc.—through some form of proportional representation. (Which form? I hope to talk more about this another time.) Let’s get rid of the single-member districts and institute proportional representation in the House. This would make all seats contested and increase the number of parties represented in Congress. Representation would improve, as judged by dialogue, shared opinion, community of interests, and social perspective.

Proportional representation would go some way toward bringing Representation back to the House. And who knows, maybe then Canadian voters would look to the US with interest and appreciation, not just resentment and foreboding.

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