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The term apportionment refers to the decennial process that divides membership in the U.S. House of Representatives among the fifty states according to the size of the states’ populations. After apportionment, state governments initiate redistricting, the highly contentious process of revising the intrastate boundaries of the House districts. Article I, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution mandates that apportionment take place every ten years, and Congress is given the responsibility of managing the procedure. Two amendments to the Constitution influence apportionment: Amendment 14, Section 2 repealed the original provision that considered nonfree persons (slaves) as three-fifths of a person for counting purposes, and Amendment 16 released the federal government from the original bind of having to use a state’s population as a basis for determining tax levies.
The Constitution entitles each state to have at least one representative in the House, with the “respective numbers” of each of the states forming the basis for the further distribution of seats. Congress has the power to define the precise manner of dividing up House seats, and this process has been a continuous source of controversy. In issuing his first presidential veto, George Washington “rejected a formula designed by New York’s Alexander Hamilton for allocating seats after the 1790 census” (Prewitt 2000, p. 2). More recently, a 1998 U.S. General Accounting Office paper noted that after the number of available House seats was fixed at 435 in 1911, “a gain of representation for any one state came only with a loss of representation for another state” (p. 10). Orville J. Sweeting notes that the cap was instituted because “the House threatened to become so large, if size continued to follow population growth, that it could not properly transact its business” (1956, p. 440).
Southern and rural members of Congress were so fearful of the consequences of losing their seats due to the urban and northward shift of the population that they prevented the constitutional mandate of apportionment from taking place during the 1920s. Although apportionment has occurred in every decade since the 1930 census, the political battles associated with the process have not subsided. As currently written, Title 2 of the U.S. Code requires the use of the “method of equal proportions” to determine the allotment of seats among the states, as described in an online document produced by the Census Bureau. This method has been in place since the apportionment associated with the 1940 census, and it was upheld as constitutional by the Supreme Court in 1992 in the case of United States Department of Commerce v. Montana.
In the prelude to the 2000 census, there was a strong debate over whether statistical sampling to adjust for census undercounting could be used in the apportionment process. In 1999, the Supreme Court’s five-to-four ruling in Department of Commerce v. United States House of Representatives affirmed that Section 195 of Title 13 of the U.S. Code prohibits the use of statistical sampling, but the Court explicitly declined to rule on the constitutionality of using sampling should this section of the code be repealed.
- Prewitt, Kenneth. 2000. The US Decennial Census: Political Questions, Scientific Answers. Population and Development Review 26 (1): 1–16.
- Rush, Mark E., and Richard Lee Engstrom. 2001. Fair and Effective Representation?: Debating Electoral Reform and Minority Rights. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.
- Sweeting, Orville J. 1956. John Q. Tilson and the Reapportionment Act of 1929. Western Political Quarterly 9 (2): 434–453.
- S. Census Bureau. 2001. Computing Apportionment Homepage. http://www.census.gov/population/www/ censusdata/apportionment/computing.html.
- S. General Accounting Office. 1998. Decennial Census: Overview of Historical Census Issues. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office. http://www.gao.gov/archive/1998/gg98103.pdf.
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