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District, Congressional


DISTRICT, CONGRESSIONAL. Members of the U.S. House of Representatives are selected to represent a congressional district by the citizens living in the geographic region that comprises the district.

Under the Constitution each state is entitled to at least one representative, serving a two-year term. Congress determines the size of the House of Representatives, which in 2001had 435 members. A state's population determines the number of congressional seats apportioned to it. Although in early American history some states frequently elected congressmen-at-large, the single-member district has generally prevailed since the 1840s. Early districts varied widely in terms of population, but the U.S. Supreme Court decided in Baker v. Carr (1962) that unequally populated districts violated the equal protection clause of the Constitution. Since this decision districts within a state each have approximately the same population.

Following each decennial census, the federal government reapportions congressional districts for all the states. Each state government then redraws its district boundaries to reflect changes in the population. Districts are generally expected to be compact and contiguous, but as states redraw their district maps, "gerrymandering," the drawing of district lines to maximize political advantage, is the norm.

Partisan gerrymandering is perhaps the most common; this is done when the party currently in control of the state government redraws district lines to their own advantage. Drawing lines to protect the incumbents of all parties is also common, resulting in a few districts that are very competitive and many where incumbents are routinely reelected with high margins.

Historically, greater political conflict has occurred over the practice of racial gerrymandering; this is when boundaries are drawn to benefit one race over another in representation. Many states routinely have their redistricting maps challenged for racial gerrymandering on the grounds that such maps violate the equal protection clause of the Constitution. The U.S. Supreme Court, in its 1993 Shawv. Reno, decision, signaled that racial gerrymandering designed solely to increase minority representation in Congress is unconstitutional, but in 2001 the Court decided in Easley v. Cromartie that creation of majority-minority districts is acceptable so long as the boundary criteria are based on voting behavior rather than merely race.

The relationship between representatives and their districts is generally close. Advances in travel and communication have allowed them to visit with constituents in their districts more frequently, and many members travel home to their districts as often as once a week. Representatives also generally try to vote in the manner approved by the majority in their districts in order to enhance their chances of reelection. The Constitution requires a member of Congress to reside in the state, but not necessarily the district, from which he or she is elected. Nevertheless, except in large metropolitan areas or in districts with rapidly expanding populations, local residency for representatives has been an unwritten rule of American politics.


Davidson, Chandler, ed. Minority Vote Dilution. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1984.

Davidson, Roger H., and Walter J. Oleszek. Congress and Its Members. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Press, 1996.

Brian D.Posler

See alsoCongress, United States ; Gerrymander .

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