History of Single Member Districts for Congress

Seeking Fair Representation Before PR

Tory Mast

Section II of Article 1 of the Constitution states "The House of Representatives shall be composed of Members chosen every second year by the People of the several States.... Representatives...shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers."

The Constitution did not, however, specify the manner in which representatives are to be apportioned -- only that there be a certain number of representatives from each state. The framers of the early government of the United States also did not prescribe the means of electing representatives.

They did consider representation by single- member districts. James Madison wrote in Federalist Paper Number 56, "divide the largest state into ten or twelve districts and it will be found that there will be no peculiar interests...which will not be within the knowledge of the Representative of the district." Nevertheless, most of the original thirteen states used multi-member districts in the first congressional elections; none of course used proportional systems, which had yet to be developed.

Congress passed a series of apportionment acts, primarily after each decennial census and representatives were added to the House as new states were admitted to the Union, but Congress remained silent as to the ways in which the states elected their representatives. In 1842, six states were electing representatives at-large and twenty-two states were electing representatives by single-member district. Three states had only one representative.

First Requirement for Single-Member Districts

This arrangement changed with an apportionment act in 1842 (5 Stat. 491). This act set the House membership at 223 members and contained a requirement for single-member districts. It stated that representatives "should be elected by districts composed of contiguous territory equal in number to the number of representatives to which said state may be entitled, no one district electing more than one representative." Thus single-member districts were officially instituted by Congress.

The impetus for the requirement was partisan fairness. Andrew Hacker explains in his 1964 book Congressional Districting:

Many of the states, therefore, elected all of their representatives on a statewide, or at-large, basis. What happened, of course, was that in states where one party had a comfortable statewide majority, it carried the entire congressional delegation. As a remedy for this "winner take all" arrangement, the Apportionment Act of 1842 was passed by the Congress.... The 1842 Act was a major step toward proportional representation to the distribution of votes [for the two major parties].

There certainly was not unanimous agreement about the constitutionality of the single-member district mandate. President Tyler had this to say about the 1842 act:

One of the prominent features of the bill is that which purports to be mandatory on the States to form districts for the choice of Representatives to Congress, in single districts. That Congress itself has power by law to alter State regulations respecting the manner of holding elections for Representatives is clear, but its power to command the States to make new regulations or alter their existing regulations is the question upon which I have felt deep and strong doubts.

The states themselves have often not followed the districting provision of the 1842 act. In the first election after the passage of the 1842 act four states -- Georgia, Mississippi, Missouri, and New Hampshire -- continued to elect representatives at-large rather than by districts.

While there was considerable debate as to the legality of their election, these states' representatives were seated in the House. It was later determined in an 1844 report from the Committee on Elections that these four states' members had been duly elected. This report, too, questioned the constitutionality of Congress' authority to dictate changes in pre-existing state election laws.

Apportionment acts continued to be passed after each national census. These acts increased the number of representatives as the population of the country increased and more states were added to the Union. However, the districting provisions of the 1842 act were modified inconsistently, resulting in several important changes in congressional districting policy.

An apportionment act passed in 1850 (9 Stat. 433) increased the size of the House to 233 but dropped provisions requiring elections by districts. However, an act in 1862 (12 Stat. 572) restored the provisions of the act of 1842 requiring districts composed of contiguous territory.

An apportionment act in 1872 (17 Stat. 28) again reiterated the requirement of districts composed of contiguous territory and added that they should contain "as nearly as practicable an equal number of inhabitants." The apportionment act of 1882 (22 Stat. 5) and an act in 1891 repeated the provisions of contiguous territory and equal population of the 1872 act. An apportionment act in 1901 (31 Stat. 733) added that districts should not only be of equal population and contiguous but also be of "compact territory." These provisions were also included in 1911's apportionment act (37 Stat. 13).

Change in Requirements after 1932 Court Ruling

In 1929 Congress passed a combined census-reapportionment bill which established a permanent method for apportioning House seats according to each census. This bill neither repealed nor restated the requirements of the previous apportionment acts -- that districts be contiguous, compact, and equally populated.

It was not clear if these requirements were still in effect until the Supreme Court ruled in 1932 in Wood v. Broom that the provisions of each apportionment act affected only the apportionment for which they were written. Thus the size and population requirements, last stated in the act of 1911, expired immediately with the enactment of the subsequent apportionment act.

Thus, the permanent act of 1929 gave little direction concerning congressional districting. It merely established a system in which House seats would be reallocated to states which have shifts in population. The lack of recommendations concerning districts had several significant effects.

First, it allowed states to draw districts of varying size and shape. Second, it allowed states to abandon districts altogether and elect at least some representatives at large, which several states chose to do, including New York, Illinois, Washington, Hawaii and New Mexico. In the 88th Congress (in the early 1960s), for example, 22 of the 435 representatives were elected at-large.

1967 Law Requires Single-Member Districts

In 1967 Congress passed a law (PL 90-196) which prohibited at-large and other multi-member elections by states with more than one House seat. Only two states, Hawaii and New Mexico, were affected by this legislation: all other states by this time were using elections by districts.

This law was passed largely because of two factors. The first concern was that, in the wake of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, southern states might resort to winner-take-all at-large elections to dilute the voting strength of newly-enfranchised blacks in the South. The second concern was that the courts might order at-large elections in states which were having difficulties with redistricting. Such elections could have threatened the position of incumbents whose district seats were considered safe for re-election.

Re-Thinking the Single-Member District

The single-member district has become the tradition in American representative government. This method of electing representatives was a practical system when it was first instituted over 150 years ago. In addition to ensuring more partisan fairness among the two major parties, districts seemed to encourage representatives' accountability by being connected geographically and ideologically to their constituents. This system also provided a more efficient means of contact with constituents at a time when modes of transportation and communication were relatively slow.

The formation of equitable single-member districts has become increasingly tedious, however, and increasingly open to partisan manipulation given advances in computer technology and measures of voter behavior. It also raises important concerns about electoral fairness. The obvious example is the controversy over districts drawn to provide electoral opportunities for racial and ethnic minorities who have faced a history of discrimination.

Such districts can allow minority voters an opportunity to elect candidates of choice, yet become more problematic as our population becomes increasingly mobile and racial and ethnic minorities outside of urban areas are less concentrated in one geographic locale. In order to create some minority majority districts, districts must be carved out which are misshapen and incongruous, defeating the earlier notions that they be compact and contiguous. Similar districts of course are often drawn to protect incumbents or provide partisan advantage.

Although instituted to better represent groups in the minority, single-member districts still can consistently under-represent those in the minority, or even leave them unrepresented. Whether consciously drawn with such an intent or not, districts can consistently deny the desired representation of a permanent minority (such as blacks in most congressional districts, whites in majority black districts or Republicans in predominantly Democratic districts).

Single-member districts have undergone an equivocal and unsettled history in order for them to have become established as the norm for our national elections. Now, their effectiveness and practicality in an increasingly diverse and mobile population may well face more challenges.

On the other hand, multi-member elections for Congress are a forgotten and overlooked part of our country's electoral history. Until thirty years ago, a majority of state legislative seats were elected from multi-member districts, while a majority of local officials still are elected from such districts.

When combined with proportional representation (such as cumulative voting or preference voting), multi-member districts would provide states with a viable method to reduce problems inherent in single-member districts. Provision for simply giving states the option to have multi-member districts requires only repeal of the single-member district requirement passed by Congress in 1967.

Tory Mast is a graduate student of sociology at the University of Virginia. He was an intern for the Center for Voting and Democracy in 1994.


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