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One Person, One Vote? Here's How Many Voters Each "Representative" Really Represents

BY Micah L. Sifry | Wednesday, January 9 2013

If Members of the House of Representatives were ranked by how many raw votes they got from people in their district last November, the top 14 would all be Democrats. The number one vote-getter in 2012 was Pennsylvania's Chaka Fattah, who won re-election with a whopping 318,176 votes--nearly ten times his challenger's total. Current apportionment rules hold that every Member of the House is supposed to represent roughly 700,000 constituents, as of the 2010 census, so Fattah's vote amounted to 45.4% of that total.

That number, which we might call the "Representative Quotient" or RQ for short, varies widely across the people's house. Twenty-two Democrats, including Fattah, earned an RQ of 35% or higher in 2012. Only three Republicans got a similar score by getting more than 245,000 votes, including, interestingly enough, House Speaker John Boehner, who got 246,378 votes even though he was running without a major-party opponent. (I'm grateful to Dave Wasserman, the U.S. House editor of the Cook Political Report and @redistrict on Twitter, for posting his 2012 U.S. House Popular Vote Tracker spreadsheet, from which this data is drawn.)

Nine of the ten at the bottom of the RQ list would also be Democrats. That is, not counting the two returning Members of Congress who were re-elected with exactly zero votes each (Democrat Federica Wilson and Republican Dennis Ross). Yes, you read that correctly: there are two Members who made it back to Congress without the validation of a single voter. We can thank Florida's crazy electoral laws for that result--if a candidate doesn't have an opponent, the state doesn't bother printing their name on the general election ballots. (One out of four state legislative candidates in Florida also had no opposition, meaning no one voted for them either.)

The thirteen laggards on the list, eleven Dems and two Reps, get RQ scores of 15 or less because they got re-elected with fewer than 105,000 votes. The average Member got about 181,000 votes, with only a tiny variation between Dems and Reps overall.

It's one of the least-remarked oddities of America's political system that wide local variations in voter turnout produce a Congress where some House members are, arguably, more than two-and-a-half-times as popular, in the only terms that ought to count, than their peers. For example, Jim McDermott, the veteran liberal from Washington state, has an RQ store of 42.6%. That's 15 points higher than his opposite number Kevin Brady of Texas, who chairs the Ways and Means subcommittee on trade where McDermott is the ranking minority member. Jeb Hensarling, the chair of the powerful Banking Committee, has an RQ of 19.1, compared to the 28.6 of its ranking minority member, Maxine Waters.

If votes in Congress were scored based on how many voters each Member of Congress had behind them, the political game might look very different. But for all the chatter about how many Facebook likes or Twitter followers politicians have, I've never seen a news organization or website pay any attention to how many voters each Member has.

Power in the House is shaped first by whether you are in the majority party, and then a combination of seniority and fundraising prowess determines how high each Member gets on the greasy pole. Getting a big vote from one's constituents isn't a metric that matters on the Hill.

Twelve years ago, I interviewed Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. and Frank Watkins, his chief of staff, for an article for the American Prospect on voter turnout called "Finding the Lost Voters." Jackson told me that he made a deliberate effort to get as many votes as he could, even though he represented a safe Democratic district in Chicago, because it increased his clout up and down the ballot in state politics. Towards that goal he would always make efforts to register young voters by speaking at high school graduations and bringing voter registration forms to local college registration sessions. But Jackson was a rare exception. "I've never had a Member brag to me about their ability to pull out a large vote," says longtime Congress watcher Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute.

What then explains the wide disparity in the hard number of votes that House members get? "Turnout depends on the demographics of a district," says Gary Jacobson of the University of San Diego, the author of many definitive books on Congressional politics. "Districts with more minorities, lower education levels, and more foreign-born residents all have lower turnout." That, he says, explains the RQs of a number of the Democratic members on the bottom of the list, who represent heavily Hispanic districts in places like central California, Texas and Arizona.

Along with a district's demographics, partisan gerrymandering also skews raw vote totals. "The way that partisans are distributed these days," says Jacobson, "Democrats tend to be concentrated in urban areas where their candidates win overwhelmingly. Republicans are distributed more efficiently, and they tend to win by narrower margins."

Jacobson's reference to efficiency isn't about making sure the most voters get represented well--it's about how well partisan mapmakers carve up the voters to maximize their electoral value. Explains Thomas Patterson of Harvard's Kennedy School, author of the book The Vanishing Voter: "Republicans controlled more of the states during the latest round of redistricting, which means that they had the chance to draw more of the district boundaries….The game in redistricting is to create safe seats for your party but without wasting votes in the process. Thus, for example, you might aim for a 60-40 district. When it comes to the other party's candidates (usually incumbents), the goal is to waste their votes. Thus, if you're a Republican legislature, you will identify the Democratic candidates who are likely to win and load up their districts with as many Democrats as possible, thus reducing Democratic chances elsewhere in the state."

Variations in House district turnouts may also be explained by two additional factors, says Sarah Binder, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who focuses on Congress. Since it's harder to turn out a rural voter than an urban voter, in pure organizational cost terms, higher turnout are more likely in compact districts. And northern tier states like Oregon, Wisconsin and Minnesota that have a history of greater civic participation, strong campaign finance laws and reduced barriers to voter registration also tend to produce higher absolute votes in House races.

The chart below ranks House Democrats and Republicans by their actual vote totals (names with an asterisk are incumbents who were re-elected).

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