My parents were married 49 years ago Thursday at the First Presbyterian Church of Deerfield.
I generally don’t wax nostalgic about family topics in this state government column, but thinking back to 1974 and what else has been around that long put my nerd brain onto the 1970 Illinois Constitution. (Another link in that memory chain is knowing Aug. 31, 1847, marked the end of the convention that led to the 1848 state constitution. But I digress…)
The 1970 document changed Illinois in many ways, but for now the focus falls narrowly on composition of the General Assembly. Just about everyone 70 and younger has only voted under the current setup: 59 Senate Districts and 118 House districts, with all 177 members directly elected. The system in place starting in 1954 had 58 Senate and 59 House districts, but each House district sent three people to Springfield based on a cumulative voting approach.
The 1970 census counted the state’s population as 11,113,976. This gave each senator, roughly, 188,372 constituents. For House members, it worked out to 94,186. The Census Bureau’s July 1, 2022, estimate is 12,582,032 residents. That’s 213,259 per senator and 106,630 per representative.
Given improvements in mass communication and transportation in the past half century, those increases don’t seem unreasonable. But the numbers look much worse when pivoting from Springfield to Capitol Hill.
The 1929 Permanent Apportionment Act froze the size of the U.S. House of Representatives at 435 seats. At the time, when Illinois had 27, each House district included roughly 210,000 residents. By 2020, the figure was 760,000. We now have 17.
Before 1929, the House size changed with every census, almost always an increase. According to a 2021 analysis from Geoffrey Skelley of FiveThirtyEight, the change came about with a notable change in national demographics: the 1920 census was the first to report a majority of Americans living in urban settings.
“And although the Census Bureau’s definition was broad – it included any place with at least 2,500 people – the finding reflected America’s power center was moving away from rural areas toward urban ones due to industrialization and high levels of immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe,” Skelley wrote. “This made the apportionment process particularly challenging, as Congress had to navigate two competing concerns: first, the worry that greater urban power would lead to rural seat loss if the House didn’t expand, and second, a growing belief among many members that the House was already too crowded and that an increase in seats would make it truly unwieldy.”
What are elected officials for if not navigating competing concerns? Our 1970s General Assembly composition translates to the 2020s, but Illinois’ voice in Congress has seen substantial dilution.