House of Representatives

The Heritage Guide to the Constitution

House of Representatives

Article I, Section 2, Clause 1

The House of Representatives shall be composed of Members chosen every second Year by the People of the several States....

Three issues—length of terms, equal versus proportional representation of states, and method of selection—dominated the Constitutional Convention’s debate over the makeup of the House of Representatives. Each of those issues was resolved in the language of Article I, Section 2.

The two-year term of office for the House was a straightforward compromise between those who preferred annual elections and those who favored a longer, three-year term. The original Virginia Plan envisaged that both branches of the federal legislature would be directly or indirectly accountable to “the People.” In the end, however, in the “Great Compromise,” the Convention determined that the states would be represented in the Senate and the people in the House of Representatives. During the debate over equal or proportional state representation in the House, several delegates, notably James Wilson, James Madison, and George Mason, argued for population as the just basis of apportionment. That later became conflated with the related but distinct question on the manner of selection of representatives.

What the Framers intended in providing for election “by the People” can be better understood in terms of the alternatives that they rejected. The Committee of the Whole vigorously debated and discarded a counter resolution that the House be selected by “the State Legislatures, and not the People.” Elbridge Gerry suggested that Members be selected by state legislatures from among candidates “nominated by the people.” Another compromise, proposed by Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, provided for the House to be selected “in such manner as the legislature of each state shall direct.” Against these proposals, Madison and Wilson argued that selection by the people was necessary to link citizens directly to the national government and to prevent the states from overpowering the central authority. Article I, Section 2 secured direct popular election of the House.

The scope of the phrase “by the People,” however, was neither debated nor defined at the Convention. It appears to have meant the direct popular election with a relatively broad right of suffrage as determined by the states’ own practices. Madison described electoral accountability to the people as “the republican principle.” The Federalist No. 10. Responding to charges that the House would not represent “the mass of the people,” Madison argued in The Federalist No. 57 that “[t]he electors are to be the great body of the people of the United States. They are to be the same who exercise the right in every State of electing the corresponding branch of the legislature of the State.” Leading Anti-Federalists, such as Melancton Smith and the anonymous Brutus, used the term in a similar fashion, affirming the broadly accepted meaning. Thomas Jefferson defined “the People” as no particular class but, rather, “the mass of individuals composing the society.”

The Constitution does not, however, require Representatives to be elected by districts. In the beginning, many states chose their Representatives on an at-large basis. Congress, however, used its authority to regulate the “Times, Places and Manner” of choosing its Members (Article I, Section 4, Clause 1) to require single-member districting in the Apportionment Act of 1842.

Comments at both the Convention and at state ratifying conventions indicate substantial support for the general proposition that Representatives within each state should be apportioned in districts in a manner roughly equal to population. Although every state admitted to the Union between 1790 and 1889 had an original state constitution providing for district apportionment based on population, none adopted absolute equality of population for each district. Geography, history, and local political boundaries cut against equally populated districts. Thus, in the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, Congress provided for up to one Representative per 500 persons, but based on townships and counties. Furthermore, besides the celebrated compromise providing each state with equal representation in the Senate, the Constitution specifically grants each state, no matter how small its population, one Representative in the House.

There was a limit, however, to what the states could do in fashioning congressional districts. The Framers did, in fact, disapprove of the infamous “rotten boroughs” of Great Britain, districts with no more than a few inhabitants that nevertheless held seats in Parliament equal, in some cases, to large cities. But they decided to address inequities in representation by leaving it to Congress’s discretion to “alter” the “Times, Places and Manner” of choosing Members. (Article I, Section 4.) Madison argued that this authority was a necessary safeguard against state-created inequalities in federal representation. In fact, in the Apportionment Act of 1872, Congress required states to provide for congressional districts with “as nearly as practicable an equal number of inhabitants,” but this language was dropped from reapportionment acts after 1911.

Until 1962, Article I, Section 4 was indeed held to be the sole constitutional remedy to malapportionment. However, in the early twentieth century, rural state legislators in many states had simply stopped redistricting in order to avoid transferring power to more populous urban areas. In 1962, the Supreme Court held in Baker v. Carr that redistricting questions were justiciable in the courts. In Wesberry v. Sanders, decided in 1964, the Court held that Article I, Section 2 mandated that congressional districts be equal in population “as nearly as is practicable.” In doing so, the Court relied heavily on statements made at the Convention in favor of representation according to population. These comments, however, were made during debate over the proportional representation of the states in Congress, not the manner in which Representatives would be selected according to the first paragraph of Article I, Section 2. Nevertheless, later that year, in Reynolds v. Sims, the Court extended the doctrine of “one person, one vote” to state legislatures, based on the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. In Lucas v. 44th General Assembly of Colorado, decided the same day as Reynolds, the Court applied the equal population rule to overturn a state districting plan that the state’s voters had specifically approved, including a majority of voters in those parts of the state underrepresented by the plan.

The Court has since held to the principle of precise mathematical equality when congressional districting is at issue. Most notably, Karcher v. Daggett (1983) struck down a New Jersey plan in which the average district population variation was 726 people, or 0.1384 percent, a difference well within the margin of error in the census count. State redistricting plans, scrutinized under the Fourteenth Amendment rather than Article I, have been granted more leeway. The Court has upheld state legislative districts with population variances up to 10 percent with no state justification at all. Gaffney v. Cummings (1973). Variations to nearly 20 percent are permissible where the state demonstrates a rational basis for its plan, such as drawing districts to follow municipal lines. Mahan v. Howell (1973). Consideration of group or economic interests is not, however, an accepted justification. Swann v. Adams (1967).

The Court has also applied the “one person, one vote” rule to local governments. Avery v. Midland County (1968). In a few limited circumstances, however, where the entity in question does not exercise “a traditional element of governmental sovereignty,” as in the case of a water storage district, the Court has not required the “one person, one vote” rule. Ball v. James (1981).

In recent years, the reapportionment decisions have drawn renewed scholarly attention. Critics claim that they have inhibited the formation of regional government consortiums to deal with metropolitan-wide problems; removed traditional constraints on gerrymandering, such as adherence to political jurisdictions or geographic regions; and imposed a particular theory of representation on the states and Congress that is not grounded in the Constitution. Critics also note that equal population does not correspond to an equal number of voters,to differing numbers of children, immigrants, and other nonvoters in a district. Thus votes are still not weighted equally. Further, birth rates, death rates, and the migration of persons in and out of districts during the decade between redistricting means that virtually all districts always have greater “malapportionment” than that permitted by the Court in Karcher. Nonetheless, the standard of “one person, one vote” remains Supreme Court doctrine, and there is little evidence that the Court is prepared to reassess its jurisprudence in the area.

Bradley Smith

Josiah H. Blackmore II/Shirley M. Nault Designated Professor of Law, Capital University Law School

Gordon E. Baker, The Reapportionment Revolution: Representation, Political Power and the Supreme Court (1966)

Robert G. Dixon, Jr., Democratic Representation: Reapportionment in Law & Politics (1968)

Grant M. Hayden, The False Promise of One Person One Vote, 102 Mich. L. Rev. 113 (2003)

Michael W. McConnell, Voting Rights, Equality, and Racial Gerrymandering: The Redistricting Cases: Original Mistakes and Current Consequences, 24 Harv. J.L. & Pub. Pol'y 103 (2000)

James L. McDowell, "One Person, One Vote" and the Decline of Community, 23 Legal Stud. F. 131 (1999)

Scott A. Reader, One Person, One Vote Revisited: Choosing a Population Basis to Form Political Districts, 17 Harv. J.L. & Pub. Pol'y 521 (1994)

Baker v. Carr, 369 U.S. 186 (1962)

Lucas v. 44th General Assembly of Colorado, 377 U.S. 713 (1964)

Reynolds v. Sims, 377 U.S. 533 (1964)

Wesberry v. Sanders, 376 U.S. 1 (1964)

Swann v. Adams, 385 U.S. 440 (1967)

Avery v. Midland County, 390 U.S. 474 (1968)

Gaffney v. Cummings, 412 U.S. 735 (1973)

Mahan v. Howell, 410 U.S. 315 (1973)

Ball v. James, 451 U.S. 355 (1981)

Karcher v. Daggett, 462 U.S. 725 (1983)