House of Representatives candidates Liz Cheney (R-Wyoming) and Peter Welch (D-Vermont) have markedly different policy proposals, yet work in a similar political context: Both seek to represent lightly populated districts. At the zenith, a House district can comprise more than 1 million people. But if elected, Cheney and Welch will need only keep in touch with and faithfully represent somewhat more than half that number. Such disparities raise the much-debated political and legal question of whether voters receive more responsive representation in Washington if they happen to live in a cozier district versus one in which their voice may be lost in the crowd. Does representing a Cheney-sized district keep a legislator better chained to the folks back home, and does representing a Welch-sized district make it harder for a Member of Congress to welch on his or her campaign promises?

Professor Frances Lee of the University of Maryland says that debates about district size go back to the dawn of the Republic, when anti-Federalists argued that even 30,000 people was too large a number for a single elected official to fairly represent. Her research with fellow political scientist Bruce Oppenheimer suggests that modern voters may feel the same way: In states with larger populations, voters tend to approve of their senators less and subject them to tougher re-election races.

Research by professor Brian Frederick of Bridgewater State College has shown that as the population size of Congressional districts rises, perceptions of the local House of Representative member worsen. Relative to people in populous districts, people in low-population districts are more likely to describe their House member as highly in touch with and very helpful to voters. Lightly populated districts are also characterized by higher approval levels of House members.

It’s not just voter perceptions of House members that change: Representatives from more-populous districts are more likely to take political stances that deviate from what their typical constituent believes. Frederick describes all these effects of larger district population as mutually reinforcing. “In big districts it is harder for House Members to have as much personal contact with voters and to keep track of what they are thinking," he says. "This makes them more likely to drift away from their constituents, which further fuels the sense back home that they are out of touch.”

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As constituency size seems to influence quality of representative government, trying to equalize population across districts — a goal endorsed by the U.S. Supreme Court and governments in other nations — has a logical basis. Frederick would also like the House of Representatives to expand, arguing that “it’s more efficient to freeze it at 435 members, but it would be more democratic to grow it by 250 seats.”

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University.

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