Sunday, October 11, 2009

Freedom and Legislative District Sizes

Is there a direct relationship between the total number of people per representative and freedom? Consider the tale of two states: California and New Hampshire. As explained later in this article, various freedom rankings give California a very low score with respect to the freedoms enjoyed by its citizens; in contrast, “Live Free or Die” New Hampshire scores high in the freedom indices. As of the 2000 Census, California has a total population of approximately 34 million. And New Hampshire’s total population is approximately 1.2 million (about the same as the city of San Diego). Now we get to the interesting part. California’s huge population is represented by 80 legislators in the lower house of their state legislature. Given that fact, how many legislators would you expect to find in the lower house of tiny New Hampshire’s state legislature? 30? 60? 120?

New Hampshire’s 1.2 million citizens are represented by 400 legislators in the lower house of their state legislature! Compare that to the 435 representatives who, ostensibly, represent 300 million Americans in the federal House of Representatives. (TTO) contends that reducing the population size of legislative districts forces the representatives to be more accountable to the citizens they are elected to represent and, as a result, smaller legislative districts foster greater individual liberty. Conversely, as legislative districts grow larger, so does the tendency for the government to become increasingly autocratic.

Though the relationship between district population size and freedom may not seem obvious, it is easy to understand by considering this thought experiment: imagine a continuum between two extremes of representation. On one end there is a highly representative legislature comprised of relatively small electoral districts with one representative for every 1,000 citizens. At the other end of the spectrum, there is a government ruled only by a single elected official (i.e., a governor). It is easy to imagine that the highly democratic government would afford more liberties to the citizenry, whereas the oligarchic scenario is likely to be highly statist.

A new TTO report, “State Freedom Indices and Legislative District Population Sizes”, establishes that there is indeed a significant correlative relationship between smaller district sizes and increased freedom.1 This relationship can be shown using a simple analysis which relies upon a set of rankings known as “freedom indices”.

What is a “Freedom Index”?

A freedom index ranks all the states (which comprise the U.S.) according to the degree of freedom permitted by each of their respective governments. Identified in the TTO report are various freedom indices which focus on specific areas such as economic freedom, regulatory policy or personal freedom. For each category, the states are evaluated relative to a variety of pertinent criteria in order to determine their respective freedom scores. The evaluation criteria used to arrive at the freedom scores are fundamentally libertarian in nature; that is, greater personal and economic freedom is attributed to reduced governmental restrictions and taxation.

Legislative District Population Size

The average legislative district size for each of the fifty states is shown in the chart below.

A state’s district population size is simply its total population divided by the number of representatives in the lower house of its legislature. In addition to the lower house district size, the chart also provides a secondary representational ratio as a point of reference. (The secondary measure is equal to the state’s population divided by the total number of representatives in both houses of its legislature.)

Freedom and District Size

The TTO analysis examines each freedom index relative to the population size of the states’ legislative districts. Because the size of the legislative districts varies widely from state to state, the fifty states provide an ideal laboratory for evaluating the correlation between district population size and freedom. This simple analysis can be illustrated with the example already provided by California and New Hampshire.

In all of the freedom indices evaluated, California ranks near the bottom (least free) while New Hampshire is always ranked as a high-freedom state. California has a total population of approximately 34 million which are represented by only 80 legislators in the lower house of their state legislature. Therefore, the average size of their lower house district is 424,135. New Hampshire’s population of approximately 1.2 million is represented by 400 representatives. Thus, New Hampshire’s average district size is only 3,096. Consequently, even though California’s total population is 27 times larger than New Hampshire’s, California’s electoral district size is 137 times larger!

The fact that high-freedom New Hampshire has very small electoral districts while low-freedom California has very large districts begs this question: is that a random occurrence or is it indicative of a broader underlying relationship?

The Analysis

Using the various freedom indices cited within the report, all fifty states are ranked from most free to least. That list is then divided into thirds: the most-free group, the middle group and the least-free group. For each of those groups, the average size of the state legislative districts is calculated.

One of the freedom indices evaluated was “Freedom in the 50 States: An Index of Personal and Economic Freedom” which was produced by the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.2 They report on five different indices as shown in the chart below.

In order to explain this analysis, let’s take a look at the “Overall Freedom” index, the fifth index in the chart. Note that the average district size of the “least free” group, 73,136, is substantially larger than that of the most free group (45,842). In fact, it is 60% larger!

For all of the indices shown in the chart above, the average size of the least-free group of states is significantly larger than that of the most-free group of states. As shown in the TTO report, the freedom indices provided by two additional reports (from two other think tanks) produced similar results with respect to the least-free districts being significantly larger than the most-free districts.


If there were no relationship between the states’ district population sizes and their freedom indices, then we would expect this analysis to produce fairly random results among the three groups (i.e., low freedom, medium, and high freedom). Clearly this is not a random relationship: 15 different freedom indices (from three different reports) were evaluated and, in every case, the average district size of the least-free group of states was significantly larger than that of the most-free group.

This analysis establishes that there is a significant correlative relationship between smaller district sizes and increased freedom. Moreover, contends that this is a causal relationship; that is, as the legislative districts become larger, the government becomes increasingly oligarchic and statist.

© 2009, Inc.

The complete TTO report is available at:
[2] The Mercatus “Freedom in the 50 States” report can be downloaded from this page:

If you have any questions or wish to comment on this post, please visit's forum. Also, many commonly asked questions are answered in the Question & Answer section of TTO’s home page.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The naming of

What should we name an organization which is focused on educating the public about the benefits of enlarging the number of representatives? We could name it something descriptive (such as Enlarge our Representation), auspicious (Take Back our Government), provocative (Overthrow the Oligarchy), or evocative of its constitutional origins (We the People). But I chose to name it

Why “Thirty-Thousand”?

The Constitution specifies that the minimum population size of a congressional district shall be thirty-thousand and, as such, this number provides a benchmark, or a reference point, to what was believed to be an appropriate size for a federal district. However, if not for the events that transpired on September 17, 1787, we would be discussing forty thousand rather than thirty thousand.

“Security for the Rights & Interests of the People”

September 17, 1787, was the final day of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. Two days earlier the convention unanimously agreed to the text of the Constitution and, having since been inscribed on the parchment, it was now ready to be signed by all the delegates present. Despite that, an urgent proposal was made to the assembly by the delegate from Massachusetts who requested, for the purposes of lessening the objections to the Constitution, that the clause declaring “the number of Representatives shall not exceed one for every forty thousand...” might be reconsidered in order to strike out forty and replace it with thirty. After this motion was seconded by others, George Washington rose to address the question. Though he had been the president of the convention, this was the first time Washington addressed the assembly on a substantive matter. According to Records of the Federal Convention, Washington stated that:
The smallness of the proportion1 of Representatives had been considered by many members of the Convention, an insufficient security for the rights & interests of the people. …and late as the present moment was for admitting amendments, he thought this of so much consequence that it would give much satisfaction to see it adopted.2

On the strength of Washington’s argument ― that forty thousand was too large to provide sufficient “security for the rights & interests of the people” ― this proposal was then unanimously affirmed. The word “forty” was changed to “thirty” so that the Constitution now declares that the “Number of Representatives shall not exceed one for every thirty Thousand...” ― and with that awkward prose, thirty-thousand became the minimum district size.

Forty-Thousand is too large?

Given that the average size of a congressional district is currently around 700,000, a district of 40,000 may seem rather quaint. However, as explained above, 40,000 was viewed as so large that, fearing it would be rejected by the public, the Founders reduced it to 30,000. How could forty-thousand be considered too large? As illustrated in the chart to the right, in 1787 the constituency sizes of the representatives in the state legislatures ranged from 1,012 to 6,032.3 Given that, it easy to see why the general public would have to be persuaded to accept even the smaller 30,000-person districts.

Selling the Constitution

After the Constitution was proposed, a series of editorials were published in order to generate popular support. Now known as the “Federalist Papers”, these treatises elaborated on the many virtues of the Constitution and offered defenses against criticisms. Relative to the large congressional districts, Federalist 56 argued that because the “objects of federal legislation” were to be limited to a few areas, “a moderate number of representatives” would be sufficient. Clearly, the “objects” of federal legislation have since become boundless, but that is a different subject.

Returning to the main subject, in two of the Federalist Papers “thirty-thousand” was presented as an absolute ratio without any hint that it was merely a minimum! Federalist 56 declared that “ seems to give the fullest assurance, that a representative for every THIRTY THOUSAND INHABITANTS will render the [House of Representatives] both a safe and competent guardian of the interests which will be confided to it.” Not only was this absolute assurance provided, but “thirty thousand” was entirely capitalized (just as quoted above).

The Bill of Rights

Fortunately, the members of the states’ conventions (which convened to evaluate the proposed Constitution) noticed the indefiniteness of the Constitution’s “shall not exceed” language. For example, Melancton Smith (delegate to the New York convention) observed in June of 1788 that it is “a power inconsistent with every principle of a free government, to leave it to the discretion of the rulers to determine the number of representatives of the people. There was no kind of security except in the integrity of the men who were intrusted; and if you have no other security, it is idle to contend about constitutions.4

Consequently, this became the most contentious issue debated during the states’ ratification conventions. For example, 30% of the New York convention’s 85,000-word transcript was devoted exclusively to this subject! Moreover, of the six state conventions that endorsed various amendments to the Constitution, five proposed an amendment that would require a minimum number of representatives (to complement the maximum resulting from the Constitution’s “one for every thirty Thousand”).

On June 8, 1789, James Madison proposed a set of amendments for the Bill of Rights which “were a distillate of the proposals emanating from the state conventions”. The second amendment proposed in his long list was to establish a maximum district size to complement the minimum district size. In fact, as explained in “The Minimum and Maximum Size of the U. S. House of Representatives”,5 Madison had originally proposed that the maximum district size be thirty thousand ― there’s that number again!

The Name Tells a Story

With current district sizes averaging 700,000 and growing, 30,000 provides a reference point against which we can measure how far our government has drifted from being a truly representative democracy. Safe within their imperial-sized districts, most representatives have become dismissive (if not disdainful) of we the people. The reason for this is simple: the huge cost of campaigning in massive districts ensures that the incumbents are accountable only to the special interests that finance their campaigns, but not to us inconsequential citizens. Imagine how accessible and accountable our elected representatives would be if we lived in districts with total populations much closer to the Founders’ vision of thirty-thousand.

[1] By “smallness of the proportion”, Washington is referring to the ratio of 1:40,000 (which equates to 1/40000 or 0.0025%); that is a smaller proportion than 1:30,000 (which equates to 1/30000 or 0.0033%).

[2] Records of the Federal Convention (Farrand’s Records) pages
[3] This is the average number of people per legislator in the lower house of the state’s assembly. For additional information see the TTO Information Brief: “
Average Number of Residents per Representative circa 1787”.
[4] June, 1788. Source: New York Debates:
Quotes Regarding the Size of the House of Representatives
[5] Supporting citations for this section can be found in the TTO report titled “The Minimum and Maximum Size of the U. S. House of Representatives” which can be downloaded from
this page.

If you have any questions or wish to comment on this post, please visit's forum. Also, many commonly asked questions are answered on TTO's home page (see the Question & Answer section).