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The History Of The Census And House Of Representatives


The first results of the 2020 census will be out soon. High stakes here - they determine how many seats your state gets in Congress and how many votes you get in the Electoral College. Now, that can change every 10 years, depending on what the census produces. But there is one number that hasn't changed for more than a century. Here's NPR census correspondent Hansi Lo Wang.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: That number comes into focus once a decade, when Census Bureau directors announce, like Robert Groves did in 2010...


ROBERT GROVES: The 435th seat...

WANG: As in the 435 seats for the voting members of the House of Representatives. Those seats, as well as 435 of the Electoral College votes, are reshuffled every 10 years, after ranking the states by their latest census population counts. The number 435 has set up an almost century-long fight where one state's win is another state's loss.

AKHIL AMAR: Just a technical, teeny-tiny reminder.

WANG: Except when the House expanded to 437 seats for a short period of time, after Alaska and Hawaii became states in 1959, as Yale law professor Akhil Amar will remind you.

AMAR: Because no one wants to take away seats from existing states in the middle of a census cycle.

WANG: Amar has written a new book on the history of the U.S. Constitution that details how the framers were especially worried.

AMAR: This government's going to tax us up and down and sideways, but the so-called House of Representatives isn't properly representative.

WANG: The House started with about one-seventh the number of seats it has today.

MARGO ANDERSON: I can read you numbers - 65, 106, 142...

WANG: Census historian Margo Anderson.

ANDERSON: I'm reading from my book, "The American Census: A Social History," page 277 (laughter).

WANG: Those numbers show that, generally speaking, it used to be that states did not lose House seats. That's because, for the most part, the size of the House grew along with the census numbers, until after the 1920 count when...

DAN BOUK: The apportionment system failed.

WANG: Dan Bouk, a historian at Colgate University, has a new report out about how Congress did not use the results of the 1920 census to reshape the House. Some congressional leaders pushed to leave it at 435 seats, which became the de facto cap.

BOUK: The thing that really caused the apportionment to get hung up over and over again was the insistence that the House of Representatives could no longer grow any larger.

WANG: Those congressional leaders argued for efficiency. They didn't want to spend money to build more office space for a bigger house.

BOUK: It meant also, though, a sense that the House had already grown too large to have good debates.

WANG: Those arguments apparently won out in 1929, when Congress passed a law that set up an automatic process for reapportioning based on the existing number of House seats - 435.

BOUK: When I started this research, I have to admit that I hadn't even thought about the fact that those numbers could change (laughter). They now seem to be so natural, and they seem so fixed.

WANG: In reality, though, there has been discussion about expanding the House.

ANDERSON: But right now it doesn't have political legs.

WANG: Still, census historian Margo Anderson says she's concerned about how representative the House actually is because, a century ago, there was 1 member for about every 200,000 people, and today there's about 1 for about every 700,000.

ANDERSON: Congress has the authority to deal with this any time. It doesn't have to be right at the census.

WANG: And it might have to if, say, Washington, D.C., or Puerto Rico become a state. Until then, there will still be a fight for the power in 435.

Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News, New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRICHOTOMY'S "JUNK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Hansi Lo Wang (he/him) is a national correspondent for NPR reporting on the people, power and money behind the U.S. census.