by Karl Kurtz
Steve Wiegand wrote a column today in the Sacramento Bee about a proposal to increase the size of the California Legislature. California's 40 Senate districts of about 850,000 people each are larger than any other legislative districts in the country outside of the U.S. Senate (even then, California Senate districts are larger than six states). The state's 80 Assembly members each represent about 425,000 people. So the question of the size of the legislature and legislative districts is a legitimate one.
Despite a few seemingly obligatory media shots at the legislature and an occasional lame joke at the expense of non-Californians ("New Hampshire...has a legislature of 424, and a total population of about 425. They take turns not being a legislator."), Wiegand thinks clearly about the issue and has done his homework on it. Perhaps as interesting as anything else, though, is that within a few hours of the column appearing on line, half a dozen people posted comments on it. Most of the comments are well-reasoned and add new ideas.
One of the more interesting ideas that has been floating around in California (and is covered in the column) is to keep the total number of legislators at 120 but put them into a unicameral legislature. That would reduce each district's size to 283,000.
All of this raises questions about the appropriate size of legislatures and of legislative districts. I'll try to add some more information and perspective to this issue below the jump.
There's a great deal of variation in the size of state legislative chambers. Houses of representatives range from 400 in New Hampshire to 40 in Alaska. Minnesota has the largest senate with 67 members and Alaska the smallest with 20.
Similarly, legislative district populations vary greatly. Leaving aside California's giant districts for the moment, state houses of representatives range from a low of about 3,100 people in New Hampshire House districts to a high of 210,000 in New Jersey (which has two-member districts). The smallest senate districts are in North Dakota (13,000) and the largest (672,000) in Texas. Here's a table on legislative districts that provides complete information.
Here's what my coauthors, Alan Rosenthal, Burdett Loomis and John Hibbing, and I had to say about district size in Republic on Trial: The Case for Representative Democracy:
Representation probably is easier in smaller rather than in larger districts. Smaller districts are likely to be more homogeneous, with fewer organized interests and fewer competing ones. In districts under 50,000 or so representatives can have personal contact with a sizeable proportion of constituents. Geographical size and shape also affect the nature of representation. Urban districts are more concentrated, while rural districts are more dispersed. In California state legislative districts range from 18 to 28,991 square miles. New York’s range from one square mile to 4,731 square miles. Colorado’s districts range from those in Denver, which are roughly 6 square miles, to a district of 12,916 square miles that covers the entire northwest corner of the state.
Is there an ideal size of legislative districts? No. As with so many other issues of government organization, each state needs to find its own solution that best fits its circumstances and traditions.
But the large populations of those districts in California, the Texas Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives appear to make effective representation--the link between legislators and their constituents--difficult. A good case can be made that it would make sense to increase the number of legislators and reduce the ratio of elected representatives to people in those and perhaps a few other cases.
However, there's a tradeoff between smaller legislative districts and having a manageable legislative body, once you get beyond a certain (unspecified) number of members. For example, in the case of Congress reducing the size of house districts (as advocated by UC San Diego political scientist and blogger Matthew Shugart, among others) would require substantially increasing the size of an already unwieldy body.
But other than the New Hampshire House, no state legislature approaches the size of the U.S. House, so perhaps democracy could be improved in a few states with very large districts by increasing the size of their legislative bodies.
The irony is that one of the great state legislative reform movements of the 1960s and 70s was to decrease the size of legislatures to make them more efficient and effective. (The legendary--and super-sized--speaker of the California Assembly, Jesse Unruh, used to say about this reform, "I was always opposed to reducing the size of the legislature because I thought they were talking about reducing the size of legislators.")