Is the House of Delegates Too Small?

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    The House of Delegates before session in 2009

    With today’s release of 2010 Census data, we find that Virginia’s 40 State Senators will represent 200,025 people, and Virginia’s 100 Delegates will represent 80,010. Our House districts will be the 10th largest in the nation, even as our 100 seats pale in comparison to much smaller states like New Hampshire who have 400, and even larger states like Pennsylvania with 203.

    Last year, I worked on Greg Werkheiser’s campaign in House District 42, where a staggering $1,733,779 was spent by both sides, one of the six districts (21st, 34th, 42nd, 58th, 67th, 86th) where over $1 million was spent by both sides. In 2011, we can expect to see our first multi-million dollar House of Delegates race, with even second-tier races threatening to break $1 million. Increasing the size of the House will bring multiple benefits–increased contact between members and constituents, campaigns focused more on canvassing than mail and television, increased voter turnout, and (counterintuitively) less government waste. While Senate campaigns may be a lost cause, we can still preserve the concept of a citizen legislature in our House of Delegates.

    As the cost and both State Senate and House of Delegates campaigns spiral out of control, it is time to consider increasing the size of the House of Delegates to preserve the last and final semblance of viable retail politics in our state government. It’s no wonder that citizens feel disconnected from their government. The idea of sending a Congressional candidate to a voter’s door has been ludicrous for some time, and even State Senate campaigns only send the candidate canvassing in targeted precints. The one race in our state government where candidates strive to meet every voter is the House of Delegates, where at least in Northern Virginia candidates are expected to knock on every street in their districts. Inevitably, with population growth and advances in campaigns, State Senate campaigns and now House of Delegates campaigns are increasingly being run like Congressional races, and with increased popuation growth comes a tipping point where it is no longer viable for candidates to knock their districts.

    What’s the purpose of a bicameral legislature House campaigns become exactly like Senate campaigns? Massive districts make it more difficult for constituents to have face time with their legislator, and for ordinary citizens to mount a challenge to an incumbent. On one end we have California, where 80 members of the State Assembly represent 465,675 people. How could anyone imagine meeting their state legislator as an ordinary citizen when there are nearly half a million to tend to? On the other end is New Hampshire General Court, where 400 volunteers represent 3,291 people, roughly the size of a precinct. If we were to repeat such a ratio for Virginia, the General Assembly Building would collapse under the weight of 2,431 Delegates.

    We don’t need a New Hampshire-style House–but having a larger, smaller-district House paired up with a smaller, large-district Senate brings tangible benefits. Our House-to-Senate seat ratio of 2.5 (100 seats to 40) is right in the median in the United States. In a bicameral format, the key to success is not just increasing the size of the legislature, but also increasing the ratio between the lower and upper house–which decreases pork barrel spending. A 2007 analysis published in the American Political Science Review explains:


    However, as the House-to-Senate seat ratio (k) increases, spending decreases in equilibrium. The basic intuition here is that dividing each Senate district into more House districts has the effect of shrinking each House member’s constituency, ceteris paribus. Having a smaller constituency dilutes House members’ payoffs from exploiting common pool resources to fund large pork barrel projects.

    On every level of state government, personal interaction with the power brokers is largely a pipe dream. Millions elect your governor. Your State Senator’s district stretches for miles. But your Delegate should be an accessible citizen who comes to your door to ask for your concerns and is easily reachable on a personal level. Voters who feel at least some personal connection to the people on their ballot will be more likely to come out and vote, and stay involved in the process.

    It should not cost seven figures to be elected to the most accessible level of state government. As the cost of campaigns increase, and the number of doors each campaign is responsible for spirals ever higher, only rich dilettantes and retirees will be able to leave their jobs and campaign full-time for a position with lousy pay. Candidates face a choice between spending their evenings raising money or speaking to voters, and without a cut in the size of the House district, raising money will eventually become paramount.

    If we really want to maintain the idea of a citizen legislator, we must make House districts a manageable size. Either we transition to a full-time legislature with large districts, or we increase the size of the House so that each legislator is truly connected to the neighborhood they represent.

    • Steve Vaughan

      How big should we make it? 200? That would mean each delegate represented 40,000 folks and make a House district about 1/5 the size of a Senate district.  

    • Thanks for posting this, Kenton!

    • vaambition

      The state constitution gives us lattitude…but each chamber is at its constitutional maximum

    • Steve Vaughan

      ..a new house chamber. No way you could fit 200 delegates in the current chamber…unless you took out the spectator balcony and had some of them sit upstairs..

    • Teddy Goodson

      Birng it to the attention of the two state parties…. where else whould the idea be introduced? Don’t let it stop here.

    • Johnny Longtorso

      is if you pay legislators as much as a full-time job pays. Currently, with the pittance legislators receive ($13,000 or so a year), only people who are retired, own their own business, or are professionals such as lawyers or doctors can afford to (or are even able to) take off the first few months of the year for the legislative session.

    • snolan

      Kenton, this is a very interesting idea, and I thank you for bringing it up for discussion; but I see a big drawback.  Reduced statewide public scrutiny on each candidate.

      We already have almost no visibility into most House of Delegates races.  The political media only cover a few key or hotly contested races each year… and there is rarely enough awareness and scrutiny state-wide for each office.

      I say state-wide, because though only the voters of each gerrymandered district get to directly vote; the winners in each district all get to have a say in laws that impact the entire state.  We all have a state in each race, and with a hundred of them… well – clowns like Bob Marshall and Dick Black get to slip past public scrutiny and enjoy apparent support from ill-informed voters in their districts who vote strictly along party lines.

      Black made the mistake of attracting enough scrutiny that a challenger had a shot…  Marshall may be doing the same now.

      I see the same problem at the National level in the U.S. Congress… if all voters really paid attention and were made aware of Michele Bachmann and Eric Cantor could they really be elected?  One can make an effective argument that it we have too many professional politicians for us to pay attention to all of them and jettison the nutcases before they get into office.