Are Congressional Districts Too Large?

06/03/2017 01:28 pm ET

With elections coming up to the U.K. House of Commons and the French National Assembly, Americans might be excused for assuming that they are like our House of Representative elections. Both are, it is true, lower houses in bicameral systems, and both, unlike in other parts of Europe, are winner-take-all district elections with no provisions for proportional representation.

But the House of Commons has 650 members and the National Assembly 577 members compared to the 435 members of the House of Representatives, which covers a much greater population size. That works out to one representative for approximately every 100,000 U.K. and French citizens compared to one per 700,000 in the U.S.—a representation gap that is over seven times as large. Put differently, UK and French citizens potentially have seven times as much national legislative representation as do U.S. citizens..

Americans rightly worry about the problems of unrestricted campaign contributions and gerrymandering. We should also worry about the unusually large size of our Congressional districts, which is in part responsible for those problems.

Portland, Oregon, where I live, has two Congressional districts that cover its 693 thousand citizens plus an additional 729,000 outside the city limits. It would have seven for the city residents alone if we adopted U.K. and French standards.

We’re always told to write our representatives about issues. But with so many constituents, the chances of a letter I might send to my Congressional representative being actually read, much less answered, by him are remote. With a representation gap that large, form letter responses are the rule.

Winning an election in a district with 100,000 voters is a lot easier than in one with 700,000.

A candidate could get herself known quickly by speaking to local groups. She and a small number of supporters might actually be able to knock on most of the doors. For that reason, minority parties have a much greater chance of capturing legislative seat in the United Kingdom and France than in two-party United States. And they do. The House of Commons has representatives from twelve and the National Assembly from thirteen parties.

If you’re running in a district of 700,000 you’re more likely to have to travel larger distances than in a district with 100,000. People are less likely to have ever seen you on anything but a screen.

Getting on those screens costs money. The average cost per vote in the 2016 House of Representatives election was $7.79—over five times as high as the $1.44 per vote in the last general U.K. election. It is not surprising that politicians now have to spend most of their time on fund raising, usually from wealthier voters, at the expense of representing all of their constituents.

A person I know who has had a distinguished career as a public policy researcher and advocate was thinking of running for Congress and asked me what I thought. He then told me that he was told by a current member of Congress that if he won he would have to spend at least thirty hours a week on the phone soliciting contributions for his next election. I asked him if he really wanted to do that with his time.

He lost in the primary, which was bad for the country. He would have added a very informed voice to Congress. But it was probably a blessing in disguise for him. He now can continue being an effective researcher and advocate without having to spend so much time on the phone begging rich people for money.

The lower costs of U.K. and French elections is also because both countries prohibit paid political advertising and require television stations to broadcast for free campaign debates and the like. A similar law in the United States would certainly greatly reduce the costs of campaigning. But even without it, reduction in district sizes would significantly lower costs. Face-to-face could displace current screen-to-face appeals for votes.

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