Chamber size and party ‘strength’

What do folks think the correct answer to this question is: How does the size of an assembly affect the strength of political parties?

By strength, I mean the relative freedom of the individual member to cultivate constituency ties and to dissent from party leadership on votes on legislation. I also mean, holding other factors constant.

Suppose a country’s assembly is significantly smaller than its expected size, per the cube-root law. If nothing else changes, how would raising the size be expected to affect the strength of parties?

Obviously, I am thinking about potentially expanding the US House, so a starting point of non-hierarchical parties, and only two of them (and presidentialism, etc.). But I am interested in the question more broadly, and whether features of US party and legislative politics, aside from the small House size, change the impact of increased size on party strength in a manner that might be different from how it would play out in other contexts.

I ask because I genuinely do not know. I could see it going either way. A larger house, for a given population, means each member represents fewer voters, obviously. This could make personal-vote and constituency-service strategies more viable, thereby in some sense making parties “weaker”. On the other hand, a larger assembly (here, independent of population) makes internal collective action more challenging. This could result in members delegating (or simply losing) more authority to internal party leadership, making parties “stronger.” Note that these possible directions of change are closely connected to the two factors that go into the cube root law itself–this is a logical model that is based on balancing (and minimizing overall) two types of “communication channels”: those between legislators and constituents, and those among legislators themselves.

It is possible both directions of change can happen at the same time, implying parties get weaker in some ways and stronger in others. That is, more constituency-oriented behavior, but also more party leadership control over votes and especially over speaking time. I am not sure what that means for overall strength. Maybe that isn’t even the right way to frame the question; skepticism over my own question framing is why I use the inverted commas in the title of this post.

Finally, theoretically and all else equal, a larger assembly means more parties should be represented (per the Seat Product Model). I have my doubts that this would be realized in the US, however, given all the other barriers to third-party representation. Unless the House were truly huge, I do not expect much impact there as long as it is elected in single-seat districts, and with primaries (or with “top two”/”top four” rules). However, parties’ internal strength could be affected. But which way?

US House size increase: Inherently valuable?

We have frequently discussed here the question of the size of the US House. As regular readers will know, the House is undersized, relative to the cube root law, under which an assembly is expected to be approximately the cube root of the population. The law is both theoretical (grounded in a logical model) and quite strong empirically (see the graph posted years ago). However, the US House is far smaller than the cube root predicts, which would be somewhere north of 600. In fact, the House has been fixed at 435 for more than a century,1 even as the population has grown greatly.

So there is a good political science case to be made for expanding House size. My question here is whether expanding the House is something that reformers should pursue for its own sake. Or is it of subordinate value?

I ask because many advocates of a move to proportional representation (PR) will tend to believe that PR would work better in a larger House. The larger the House, the fewer states there are with only one Representative, wherein obviously a plurality or majority system remains the only option.

Strategically, however, it could be a mistake for the PR movement to hitch its wagon to the House expansion movement. If PR is attached to the idea of “more politicians” it is probably in a lot of trouble. Advocates for democracy reform might prefer both a larger House and PR, but wouldn’t most of us prefer PR to a larger House, if we can have only one or the other? (Perhaps I will engage in blasphemy, but I might trade off a somewhat smaller House if it were necessary to get PR. In other words, I value PR ahead of almost any reform I can imagine.)

Another way to look at this is, would the reformist “capital” spent on getting a larger House be worth it if we ended up with 650 single-seat districts instead of 435? I have my doubts.

While a larger House should result in more parties represented, independent of the electoral system, I am not sure I believe that we would see it under otherwise existing US political and institutional conditions. As I’ve noted many times, the Seat Product Model says that the US “should” have a party system with more than two parties, and the largest one averaging around 47% of the seats, instead of our actual average which is obviously greater than 50%. It should have an effective number of seat-winning parties of about 2.75, even with 435 seats. With 650, the expectation rises to 2.94 (and a largest averaging just under 45% of the seats). In the real USA where there are really only two parties, and we keep single-seat districts, do we have any reason to believe just adding about 200 seats (let alone a more realistic 100 or so) would result in any increase in representation of other parties? I doubt it.

So, why bother? Is the value of a smaller number of people per Representative so strong that we want it regardless of how the party system pans out? I worry it actually could have a deleterious effect. Other things equal, more seats means more homogenous districts. Some of those could be minority districts that can’t now be drawn (given other criteria in district line-drawing) and, of course, those minorities in theory could be minority-party supporters as well as nonpartisan minorities (racial and ethnic, etc.). The latter is valuable, of course. But a concern is that in an existing and likely persistent two-party system that you simply end up with more safe seats (Brian Frederick notes this possibility in his book on US House size, even as he argues in favor of an increased size). We have plenty of safe seats already! If we had multiparty politics to start with, I think a larger House would help smaller parties win more seats, and possibly render districts on average more competitive. But in a two-party system, I think it makes districts on average less competitive. (I am not sure about this, so discuss away in the comments!) As for racial and ethnic minorities, I am skeptical that we get enough of a boost from a larger number of single-seat districts to make the tradeoffs in less competitive elections worth it. They’d be better represented by PR anyway, obviously.

Bottom line: With so many reformist needs in US democracy, I don’t think House size is worth pursuing, unless it can be in a package that gets us PR. It certainly should not be allowed to be the poison pill that prevents getting PR, as I fear it could be, were we ever otherwise in a place where PR was a live option.

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  1. Except for temporary increases to accommodate Alaska and Hawaii; at the next census and reapportionment, it reverted to 435.

NYT endorses a larger House, with STV

Something I never thought I would see: The editorial board of one of the most important newspapers in the United States has published two separate editorials, one endorsing an increase in the size of the House of Representatives (suggesting 593 seats) and another endorsing the single transferable vote (STV) form of proportional representation for the House.

It is very exciting that the New York Times has printed these editorials promoting significant institutional reforms that would vastly improve the representativeness of the US House of Representatives.

The first is an idea originally proposed around 50 years ago by my graduate mentor and frequent coauthor, Rein Taagepera, based on his scientific research that resulted in the cube root law of assembly size. The NYT applies this rather oddly to both chambers, then subtracts 100 from the cube root result. But this is not something I will quibble with. Even an increase to 550 or 500 would be well worth doing, while going to almost 700 is likely too much, the cube root notwithstanding.

The second idea goes back to the 19th century (see Thomas Hare and Henry R. Droop) but is as fresh and valid an idea today as it was then. The NYT refers to it as “ranked choice voting in multimember districts” and I have no problem whatsoever with that branding. In fact, I think it is smart.

Both ideas could be adopted separately, but reinforce each other if done jointly.

They are not radical reforms, and they are not partisan reforms (even though we all know that one party will resist them tooth and nail and the other isn’t exactly going to jump on them any time soon). They are sensible reforms that would bring US democracy into the 21st century, or at least into the 20th.

And, yes, we need to reform the Senate and presidential elections, too. But those are other conversations…

Economix: Expand the US House

It is good to see the undersized nature of the US House of Representatives get attention in the New York Times‘s Economix blog. The author is Bruce Bartlett, who “held senior policy roles in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations and served on the staffs of Representatives Jack Kemp and Ron Paul”.

Bartlett notes that,

according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, the House of Representatives is on the very high side of population per representative at 729,000. The population per member in the lower house of other major countries is considerably smaller: Britain and Italy, 97,000; Canada and France, 114,000; Germany, 135,000; Australia, 147,000; and Japan, 265,000.

The strongest empirical relationship of which I am aware between population size and assembly size is the cube root law. Backed by a theoretical model, it was originally proposed by Rein Taagepera in the 1970s. A nation’s assembly tends to be about the cube root of its population, as shown in this graph.*

Fig 7.1

Note the flat line for the USA, indicating lack of increase in House size, since the population was less than a third what it is today. This recent static period is in contrast to earlier times, depicted by the zig-zag black line, in which the USA regularly adjusted House size, keeping it reasonably close to the cube-root expectation.

At only about two thirds of the cube-root value of the population (as of 2010 census), the current US House is indeed one of the world’s most undersized. However, there are some even more deviant cases. Taking actual size over expected size (from cube root) , the USA has the seventh most undersized first or sole chamber among thirty-one democracies in my comparison set. The seven are:

    .466 Colombia
    .469 Chile
    .518 India
    .538 Australia
    .590 Netherlands
    .614 Israel
    .659 USA

As expected, the mean ratio for the thirty-one countries is very close to one (0.992, with a standard deviation of .37). The five most oversized, all greater than 1.4, are France, Germany, UK (at 1.67), Sweden, and Hungary. (The latter was at a whopping 1.80, but has since sharply reduced its assembly size.) Spain, Denmark, Switzerland, Portugal, and Mexico all get the cube root prize for having assembly sizes from .975 to 1.03 of the expectation.

One thing I did not know is that an amendment to the original US constitution was proposed by Madison. According to Bartlett, it read:

After the first enumeration required by the first article of the Constitution, there shall be one representative for every 30,000, until the number shall amount to 100, after which the proportion shall be so regulated by Congress, that there shall be not less than 100 representatives, nor less than one representative for every 40,000 persons, until the number of representatives shall amount to 200; after which the proportion shall be so regulated by Congress, that there shall not be less than 200 representatives, nor more than one representative for every 50,000 persons.

Obviously, Madison’s formula would have run into some excessive size issues over time. And Bartlett does not suggest how much the House should be increased, only noting that its ratio of one Representative for very 729,000 people is excessive. On the other hand, Madison’s ratio of one per 50,000 would produce an absurdly large House! It is just the need to balance the citizen-representative ratio with the need for representatives to be able to communicate effectively with one another that Taagepera devised the model of the cube root, which as we have seen, fits actual legislatures very well.

The cube root rule says the USA “should have” a House of around 660 members today, which would remain a workable size. (If the USA and UK swapped houses, each would be at just about the “right” size!) Even an increase to just 530 would put it within about 80% of the cube root.

As Bartlett notes, at some point the US House will be in violation of the principle of one person, one vote (due to the mandatory representative for each state, no matter how small). However, a case filed in 2009 went nowhere.



* Each country is plotted according to its population, P (in millions), and the size, S, of its assembly. In addition, the size of the US House is plotted against US population at each decennial census from 1830 to 2010.
The solid diagonal line corresponds to the “cube root rule”: S=P^(1/3).
The dashed lines correspond to the cube root of twice or half the actual population, i.e. S=(2P)^(1/3) and S=(.5P)^(1/3).

A variant of the graph will be included in Steven L. Taylor, Matthew S. Shugart, Arend Lijphart, and Bernard Grofman, A Different Democracy (Yale University Press).

An even earlier version of the graph was posted here at F&V in 2005.

Citations are always nice–Increasing the size of the US House

David Fredosso, writing at Conservative Intelligence Briefing, makes the case for increasing the size of the US House, citing one of my previous posts advocating the same. He makes two additional and valuable points: (1) “The Wyoming Rule”, by which the standard Representative-to-population ratio would be that of the smallest entitled unit, is misleading as to how representation is currently (mal-)apportioned; (2) Increasing the size of the House would not, as is sometimes assumed, be of benefit to Democrats and liberals.

David quibbles with the Wyoming part of the story, noting that “Wyoming is not the most overrepresented state — by a long way, that distinction goes to Rhode Island, with its two districts, average population 528,000”, whereas Wyoming has a population of 568,000 (and one seat).

I would note that this is a very small quibble indeed, as the Wyoming Rule–which, to be fair, I neither named nor invented–refers to “smallest entitled unit” not to “most over-represented unit”. Of course, every state is a unit entitled to at least one, but sometimes a state with two members indeed will be over-represented to a greater degree than some state with one member. Whichever we base it on–smallest entitled or most over-represented–the principle is the same: expand the House.

David proposes a House of 535, and has a table of how that would change each state’s current representation. I would go higher (600 or so), but the precise degree of increase is an even smaller quibble. I am pleased to see this idea being promoted in conservative (or liberal, or whatever) circles. And it’s always nice to be cited.

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See also:

Reapportionment–a better way?; this includes a discussion of the cube-root rule of assembly size, and a graph of how the US relationship of House size to population compares to that of several other countries, and how it has changed over time as the US population has grown, but the House stopped doing so.

US House size, continued

Expand the House

Peter Baker, writing in the New York Times, picks up a theme that has been prevalent here for a while: the US House needs to be expanded, specifically to improve the reapportionment process and to restore one-person-one-vote.*

Not counting a two-election increase when Alaska and Hawaii were added** the House size has not changed since the 1912 election. Back then the US had about 95 million people, or around a third what it has today!

The House used to be expanded periodically to track population size (see graph at the second-linked item). Why not now? As the NYT notes, the US judicial system is about to be asked that question.

Some advocates of increased House size have suggested a House of over 1,000 Representatives. That’s ridiculous–and hardly helpful to the cause. The cube-root law (again, see second link) would suggest 620-660. But, really, even 600, or 550, would help restore Representativeness considerably.

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Update: Nate Silver weighs in, but suggests focusing energies on expanding and reforming the Senate. I’m all for that, too.

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* To one of the arms of the federal government, anyway.


** That is, those states came into the union between censuses, and a seat was added for each. With the subsequent reapportionment, those states’ Representatives came at the expense of voters in other states, in order to return the House at 435.

Increase the size of the House rather than bash immigrants

The Houston Chronicle, on January 21, ran an editorial that suggested increasing the size of the US House as an alternative to the proposal by a Michigan congress member to exclude non-citizens (whether legal resident or not) from the apportionment of House seats. And, yes, I am cited in the piece and, yes, the reporter (Cragg Hines) found me via F&V.

Increase the size of the House via the ‘Wyoming Rule’

In comments to one of The Core posts here at F&V, Lewis Batson of Make My Vote Count brings up an excellent idea for a rule to determine the size of the US House of Representatives. Under the “Wyoming Rule,” the standard Representative-to-population ratio would be that of the smallest entitled unit–i.e. currently Wyoming.

The House is currently only slightly malapportioned, but it will get more so over time unless the House size is increased, because of the continuing widening disparity between the smallest states (like Wyoming) and the big ones (like my California).

Lewis notes that currently the Wyoming Rule would result in a House of 569 seats (still a bit small by the cube-root standard noted in my previous Core post, but much closer). California would have 69 seats instead of 53.

This plan should be part of the Democrats’ agenda for the 2006 elections and beyond. It will never get on the Republicans’ agenda, that is for sure. But if Democrats fought for this, it would be a difficult issue for Republicans to oppose (even though they would trot out all sorts of diversionary tactics like “Democrats want more politicians”). Unlike Senate reform (which I know is a long uphill slog, though that will not keep me quiet on it), expanding the House is essential to making it do what everyone understands from High School civics class is its core Constitutional role: Represent the population.

Naturally, if I could have my electoral dreams fulfilled, I would go to MMP at the same time as the House is increased. But I would settle for just a simple uptick in the number of members of the House to the mid-500s (with a mechanism for small upward adjustments after each census), and, of course, a 50-state process of fair redistricting. (And representation–in both chambers–for citizens of the capital territory.)

Representation without gerrymandering or malapportionment! Dare to dream.

Note: In addition to the comments and linked posts below, please also see US House size, continued.

Reapportionment–a better way?

After each census, the number of seats in the US House that each state is entitled to must be recalculated. Rick Hasen’s Election Law Blog contains a pointer to an opinion piece in the Grand Rapids (Michigan) Press that suggests a change in the way this process is done.

U.S. Rep. Candice Miller, R-Macomb County, has proposed a fairer and more sensible system for deciding the number of Congress members from each state. […] Ms. Miller’s proposed amendment would change the word “persons” in the 14th Amendment to “citizens.”

The article goes on to say that this would grant Michigan one more seat than it currently has and California six (!) fewer.

Counting only citizens for the sake of determining how many people to have in Congress seems like common sense. Only citizens can vote and enjoy the full rights and privileges the country has to offer.

Well, yes, only citizens vote; however non-citizens pay taxes and receive government services–two reasons that would seem to make them relevant to calculating how much weight a state ought to have in the House of Representatives.

However, there is an alternative solution, and it does not force us to get into a divisive debate about citizenship and representation. It is so simple that it is rather amazing to me that it is rarely discussed:

INCREASE THE SIZE OF THE HOUSE.

It really makes little sense that a state should gain population (citizen or non-citizen) yet lose House seats, as Michigan and other states did after the 2000 census.

We are one of the few democracies in the world that does not periodically adjust the size of its lower (or sole) house. There is nothing set in stone about 435. It is just in federal law. In fact, we used to increase the size of the House periodically as population increased. We could do so again. Look at this graph:

assemb_size

(This is for a forthcoming book on American democracy in comparative perspective; all rights reserved, of course.)

You can see two things here:

1. The US used to keep its House size just below the cube-root of its population (as Rein Taagepera’s model predicts), but has not done so since its population was under 100 million (in 1912!).

2. The US House is one the smallest in the world among established democracies with over around 60 million residents (citizen or otherwise).

So, why not make the House even a little bit bigger? We don’t have to go all the way up to 600 or so (which would still leave us below the cube root) all at once. We could just make long-term adjustments with each subsequent census (say 480 next time, then 500, and so on), thereby not depriving Michigan and other states of existing congressional districts.

Further discussion in subsequent posts:

Increase the size of the House via the “Wyoming Rule” (December 1, 2005; also has several interesting comments from readers)

US House size, continued (December 4, 2005)

See also Steven Taylor’s analysis: An Intriguing Proposal (December 2, 2005)