Proposals to alter the American system of government are commonplace. From adding new states to packing the Supreme Court, or abolishing the direct election of Senators of the Senate outright, both sides of the aisle have no shortage of pie-in-the-sky proposals. But perhaps the only possible and potentially effective one – expanding the House of Representatives – has fallen by the wayside. One idea in particular – the Cube Root Rule – sticks out as especially promising.
What is the Cube Root Rule?
In contrast to the more well-known Wyoming Rule, which would determine the size of the House of Representatives by dividing the population of the US with the population of the smallest state (currently Wyoming), the Cube Root Rule is based on a more simple mathematical formula. Under the rule, the number of representatives nationally would be pegged to the cube root of the total population of the United States.
This change results in a far larger House; while the Wyoming Rule would increase the House from 435 seats to 573 seats, the Cube Root Rule would increase it even further to 692. That’s an increase of 37%. The largest state, California, would have 83 districts, while only two states (Wyoming and Vermont) would have a single representative.
This hypothetical map was drawn using a baseline standard of compactness, communities of interest, and political fairness when applicable. Such a map would be unrealistic in real life, but is rather a hypothetical example of how the Cube Root Rule differs from the standard congressional map in many areas. The districts can all be viewed individually on Dave’s Redistricting App.
In some areas, this map is a bit more favorable to Democrats than one might expect. The share of Democratic-leaning seats (54.4%) is slightly higher than Biden’s two-party vote share (52.3%), which seems to counteract claims that Democrats face inherent geographic hurdles using a predominantly compactness-oriented standard. On the other hand, the median seat is only Biden+3.8%, slightly lower than Biden’s 4.6% two-party vote share edge.
Additionally, the number of competitive seats somewhat varies. A total of 78 seats were won by under 5% by either Biden or Trump, and a further 66 were won by between 5% and 10%. This creates a field of 144 highly-competitive seats, or roughly 24% of Congressional districts in total. Another 24% of seats were decided in the 10-20% range, which contains a number of seats that could become competitive in wave elections. Despite the seemingly large 61-seat Democratic majority, the House under this map could easily be prone to wild swings towards one party or the other.
State by state
Perhaps the most significant impact of the Cube Root Rule would be to create additional competitive seats in virtually every state. While not every state benefits (Massachusetts in particular is so brutal for Republicans geographically that the closest seat is still Biden+7), states like Alaska, Delaware, and Idaho that otherwise favor only one party now would all gain competitive districts.
Additionally, several areas that are presently “trapped” within more partisan seats become more representative:
- In North Carolina, the Democratic-leaning Asheville area now gets a Democratic-leaning seat. This would be impossible in a standard congressional map.
- In Georgia, Democratic-leaning areas around Savannah and Augusta now get Democratic-leaning seats; previously, this could only be accomplished by combining the two cities, which lie 121 miles apart.
- In New York, Republicans now have two safe districts in Staten Island and South Brooklyn, with a third highly-competitive Biden+5 seat between the two.
- In Washington, the entire city of Spokane now lies within a very narrow Biden seat, while the competitive west coast is in a Clinton+3, Biden+8 seat.
Even strongly Democratic states like Hawaii and strongly Republican ones like North Dakota would have seats within 20%, presenting an outside chance of competitiveness in the long run.
On the other hand, natural geographic limitations do still impact competitiveness. In California, Republicans would only be favored in 14 of 83 congressional districts (17% of districts), with another eight being potentially highly competitive; in Florida, Democrats would only be favored in 18 of 45 congressional districts (40%), with another nine potentially being highly competitive.
On the opposite end, the strongly Democratic state of Delaware would have an evenly split 1-1 delegation in most elections, while New Mexico could feasibly elect three Republicans as two of its three Democratic seats are only within five percentage points. In these cases, House expansion creates less proportional results, not more.
On the whole, however, these geographic problems balance out on a national scale; however, gerrymandering could play a role in swaying these results even further. If the Cube Root Rule were to be added, objective standards for compactness and county-splitting (rules well within Congress’s power to impose, according to the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia) could mitigate some, but not all, of these risks.
How viable is it?
While expanding the House remains a longshot, there’s reason to believe the Cube Root Rule has potential – however limited. Because it offers both parties increased representation in states they might otherwise be locked out of, there is an incentive to at least encourage it. There’s little reason to believe Kevin McCarthy wouldn’t like some additional Republicans from California, for example, or that the Congressional Black Caucus would turn down the prospect of additional seats in the Deep South.
On the other hand, this proposal would undoubtably weaken the influence of smaller states in both the House and the Electoral College, potentially creating a roadblock in the Senate. Moreover, firm anti-gerrymandering provisions would be hotly-contested; Democrats tend to reject compactness-based standards for redistricting, while Republicans loathe independent redistricting commissions, a favorite of good-government groups. Reaching a broadly agreeable compromise on this matter would be challenging, if not outright impossible, given the conflicting values of both parties.