The Wilson Building in DC where the District Council debates and passes legislation.  Wilson Building DC by David Gaines licensed under Creative Commons.

The Washington region is made up of a lot of different local governments, and every person who lives in the area has someone who represents them at a city, county, and/or state level. Some local politicians are responsible for representing hundreds of thousands of citizens, while others respond to a relatively small group of consituents. I calculated which Washington region voters get more representation for their vote, and which get less.

I've often wondered if there is a right number of constituents than a legislator should represent, and whether or not local cities and counties were at the right number. My gut said that you could probably add legislators to almost every local government around here without creating an unwieldy system, but I wanted to see whether or not my hypothesis is true.

My first step was to figure out how many people there are compared to the number of legislators that represent them. To do that, I created a table with a list of governments inside the Washington DC metropolitan area along with the number of members in each jurisdiction's legislative branch, whether a city council, county board of supervisors, district council, etc. I compared this to the 2017 population estimates for each jurisdiction using the Census Fact Finder.

A few notes before diving in:

  • Some of the jurisdictions include their mayor as part of the legislative branch; when that happened I counted the mayor as part of the total. That means Alexandria has seven members in its legislative branch, but I excluded DC Mayor Muriel Bowser from the count for Washington.

  • Some jurisdictions divide their legislative branches into districts. Others are at-large, where an elected official represents all residents instead of those living in a particular district or ward. Other jurisdictions have a mix of the two. In any case, I went with the total number of legislators for now. Prince George's County has a nine-member council right now but will have 11 in the future, so I included both numbers.

  • I also included numbers for Maryland and Virginia at the state legislature level. This is important because DC functions as both a city and a state. If it one day gets statehood, then the DC Council will be a state legislature as well, and it's important to compare entities that are alike. I included the total numbers of both houses for the Maryland and Virginia legislatures since their Senate chambers are district-based, unlike the US Senate.

Here's what I found. The results are ordered from the lowest number of people represented to the highest:

Local counties and cities along with their populations and number of elected representatives. Dividing the population by the number of legislators gives you an idea of how many people each elected official represents.  Image by the author.

The average of these numbers is 28,855 people, or somewhere between Alexandria, Virginia and Charles County, Maryland. The median is 13,893 people or Fauquier County, Virginia.

While this is interesting data, I don't think these numbers alone illustrate if there is a "right" number for representation. Nonetheless, here's what stands out:

1. Smaller places rank higher on this list

Unsurprisingly, the area's rural counties and small cities are the first entries in the list. You could fit all of Rappahannock County, Virginia into a lot of other places on the list without creating any new districts. This may be attractive to someone in favor of having lots of representation, but it's worth noting that less-populated counties and cities may only have part-time legislators who likely have fewer responsibilities.

Moreover, the proportions from rural jurisdictions can't translate easily to larger ones. Fairfax County could have a County Supervisor for every 1,464 residents like Rappahannock County, but then the Board of Supervisors would have more than 700 members.

2. Five is a popular number for an elected body, until it isn't

Five is the number that shows up the most when you count legislative bodies. It's a good number for a smaller community, and thus is usually the number that made up the legislative branch when a county or city was chartered. As they've grown, most have added representatives to the original five, but some large counties are still holding onto the five-member structure.

The biggest holdout is Arlington County, Virginia where more than a quarter of a million residents are represented by five people. Moreover, all of those board members are at-large, so each one technically represents all 260,000+ residents equally rather than in districts.

3. DC might be high for a city, but seems okay for a state

This analysis only looks at jurisdictions in our region, so DC is towards the bottom of the list because of its relatively high population, rather than any lack of representation. The District falls between Maryland and Virginia if treated like a state.

If DC ever gets statehood, it probably won't need 140 councilmembers like Virginia has delegates and senators. However, perhaps more councilmembers should be considered as a part of any future state constitution.

4. Fairfax, Montgomery, and Prince George's counties could use more elected officials

I live in Fairfax, and after examining this list I can see why this question has been on my mind. Each member of the Fairfax Board of Supervisors respresents over 100,000 people. That's a lot more than even my state representative in the House of Delegates in Richmond.

You'd have to double the number of supervisors to get the county in the 50,000 range. That would be a pretty radical change.

More information, but not much clarity

Looking up these numbers was a neat exercise, but unfortunately it didn't reveal any answers on its own. While researching legislature sizes, I found evidence both for and against larger legislatures and district vs. at-large representation as well as ideas for different government structures, but little about a "right" number of constitutents.

The founding fathers almost passed an amendment that would have kept the US House of Representatives at one congressmember per 50,000 residents. That seems like a pretty good number for bigger jurisdictions in our area based on this table, but would also mean a Congress with more than 6,000 members for the nation at-large.

Other academics have tried to anchor legislature size according to a cube-root, which would give us a House of Representatives with 660 members. That seems like a good rule for a national legislature, but it would mean a DC Council with 89 members or 104 supervisors for Fairfax County. Would a DC with 89 councilmembers need Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners anymore?

Of course, other areas in the country are different. How does Washington's representation stack up against Denver or Boston? How do Fairfax and Montgomery Counties fare against Cook County, Illinois or Hennepin County, Minnesota? That's fodder for a future post.

My views are now a little murkier. Before looking up this information I often defaulted to preferring a larger legislative body, but while researching and talking to fellow GGWash contributors, I also found good arguments for smaller bodies and larger districts.

Larger districts can require elected officials to moderate their views, especially in some of the bigger counties where there is a broad mix of of urban, suburban, and even rural viewpoints to consider. Fewer elected officials to keep track of can help voters know who represents them. There are also cost considerations: adding a new member to a city council or board of supervisors requires more office space, salary, and other resources.

Going forward, I would like to look at other cities and regions across the nation, specifically different government structures and how they came about. Is there anything you notice in the table that piqued your interest? Let us know in the comments.