Political numerology

Posted on February 18, 2011. Filed under: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Columns |

From the outset, our republic has included a numbers game.

Roger Sherman’s Connecticut Compromise at the Constitutional Convention tied the number of representatives in the House to each state’s population. Thus it was necessary for a federally authorized count every so often.

The Framers deemed a decennial enumeration adequate and included its mandate in Article 1, Section 2. Originally, the representative/constituent ratio was 1 for every 30,000. But as the population grew, so did the U.S. House of Representatives and the ratio. It was 100 years ago, in fact, when Congress first set House membership at 435 seats in the Apportionment Act of 1911.

In 1929, Congress made the 435 number permanent. Ever since, any state’s gain in congressional delegation is another’s loss. Unlike our less fortunate neighboring states above and below, Arkansas gets to keep all of its representatives following the 2010 Census.

Population shifts have been changing political landscapes from the start. A lot can happen in 10 years, and often does. Even in this low-birthrate day and age, it’s not uncommon to see 50 percent growth over a decade in some cities. (Check out Bentonville, Springdale, Cabot and Bella Vista’s growth.)

That kind of population expansion creates more than a political tremor. Demographic earthquakes at both the national and state levels have routinely upset incumbent apple carts.

The census creates winners and losers, and not surprisingly some of the losers are sore. Pine Bluff’s mayor has already said he’ll challenge the 2010 count, which shows that his city’s population has fallen below 50,000.

Looking at the state map showing county population growth or loss, clear trends emerge. With three exceptions—Craighead, Greene and Crittenden—every county east of Independence lost population, and every county bordering the Mississippi River except Crittenden lost 10 percent or more.

The dwindling Delta population is matched county for county by a sea of surging growth in the northwest quadrant of the state. The green-for-growth county colors start with Fulton and Baxter at the Missouri border, run down to centrally located Faulkner, Saline and Lonoke and over to Sebastian at the Oklahoma line, then northward to Washington and Benton in the uppermost corner.

Only three counties lost population in that quadrant, which also included all five Arkansas counties with 25 percent growth or more.

Different people read different meanings into the map and data depending on their perspectives and agendas.

Politically, it’s true that the Republican counties grew while Democratic counties shrank. Rural counties lost population, urban counties gained it. Counties with larger minority populations suffered more decline, as did poorer counties and more agricultural counties.

These demographic changes will affect schools, crime, health care and economic development, all areas within the purview of governmental policy, which means that at some point we must start facing some stark realities regardless of which politically correct oxen get gored.

The census not only results in congressional redistricting at the federal level, but its data are used to redraw state districts.

Redrawing Arkansas’ congressional boundaries will necessarily enlarge the geographic areas of the 1st and 4th (northeast and southern)districts at the expense of the 2nd and 3rd (central and northwest). Watch for some manipulative gerrymandering, especially when the lines are getting penciled in on Arkansas’ 135 state legislative districts.

Now that the nation has surpassed the 300 million mark, it’s probably time to start seriously rethinking the 435 number for Congress. Originally, there were 65 congressional seats representing 4 million citizens. Today, the ratio varies to some degree, but averages about 1 representative for every 700,000 inhabitants or so (308 million divided by 435).

As opponents of the Reapportionment Act of 1929 argued nine censuses ago, what’s so sacred about the number 435?

The House was envisioned as the people’s chamber, and even the simplest math would argue that when the population triples, as it has since the 1920s, representation suffers dreadfully if no new members are added.

It would seem that high-speed Internet, pervasive Wi-Fi, video conferencing, smartphones et al. would encourage an expansion of the U.S. House. It’s not practicable to go back to the 1:30,000 ratio, but 1:100,000 could certainly work, and maybe even a smaller ratio than that.

So what if we had a small town’s worth of representatives? They wouldn’t even have to all be in Washington for sessions, a blessing in itself, not to mention a smiting blow against the entrenched lobbyist infrastructure.

With many more congressional members, they might actually get back to the business of lawmaking, too, instead of delegating it all to staffers. They certainly could spend less time—and money—campaigning.

In an era when the country most needs independent and innovative thinking, a new reapportionment that reduces the ratio between representatives and constituents might just be the needed shot in the arm. It certainly couldn’t hurt.

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