The Dome of the U.S. Capitol Building at sunset seen from Upper Senate Park in Washington, Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2023. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

A Deesmealz analysis of Census data shows that rural Americans don’t have outsized voting power in the U.S. House of Representatives, despite an oft-repeated assertion that congressional apportionment gives rural voters undue influence.

If you have even a passing familiarity with political news this election year, you know that the rural voter has been a focal point of debates as stereotypes about bigotry, hatred, and taste for political violence fuel fears of a collapsing democracy. One popular talking point about rural voters is the insistence that rural voters wield too much political power in Congress and the Electoral College.

Leaving aside the Senate and Electoral College for the time being, let’s focus on the assertion that the average rural voter has more power in the House of Representatives than the average suburban or urban voter.

Using U.S. Census data, I found that rural voters don’t have that kind of advantage. And arguments that rural voters are more powerful than other geographic blocs rely on fuzzy definitions of what it means to be rural.

The Myth of Rural Malapportionment

Political scientists refer to unequal representation in Congress as malapportionment.

In its simplest form, equitable apportionment means that each congressional district should have roughly the same number of residents. In practice, the population size of congressional districts varies a bit because the Constitution says each state must have at least one representative, no matter its population. Apportionment must also account for fractional changes in population; you can’t assign half a representative to one district and 1.5 to another, even though that’s theoretically what is necessary to maintain perfect equity in apportionment.

So the voter in the district with the smallest population has more power at the ballot box than the voter in the largest congressional district. With fewer voters, each vote has a greater theoretical chance of affecting the results.

Take Delaware and Montana, for example. Because Delaware is a small state, it only has one congressional district. The population of that district, which is equivalent to the size of the state, is close to 1 million residents.

Montana, on the other hand, with a population of about 1.1 million, has two congressional districts, each of which has a smaller population than Delaware’s single congressional district. Montana’s first district is the smallest by population in the U.S., with about 542,100 residents. That’s about half the size of Delaware’s district, according to the latest U.S. congressional maps. Is it fair that Montana’s first district and Delaware both get one representative? Maybe not. But that problem has nothing to do with how rural or urban Montana is.

How Does the Census Define Rural?

Federal agencies use over a dozen definitions of rural. But at their core, those definitions are generally variations on two predominant categorization systems — one, the OMB’s Metropolitan Statistical Area, which goes down to the county level, and two, the Census definition, which is based primarily on population density. The Census definition subdivides counties down to the census block level, meaning that parts of a county may be rural and other parts urban.

The Census Bureau uses the smallest scale at which we can measure rurality. The census block is about the size of a neighborhood block. The Census definitions, which were revised for the 2020 census, says census blocks with a population of 5,000 residents or 2,000 housing units are urban. Everywhere that is not urban is rural. Using the Census definition, these rural places can range anywhere from an uninhabited desert to a small community.

Because the census definition of rural is the most granular definition available, it captures more detail than other measures. It’s also one of the more generous estimates of rurality that exist, biasing estimates in favor of rural malapportionment.

Given Montana’s frontier history, cowboy culture, and wilderness areas, it might come as a surprise that the majority of residents in Montana’s first district aren’t even rural, according to the Census definition, which is based on population and housing density at the block level. There might be a lot of wide open spaces in Montana, but that doesn’t mean that the majority of the state’s residents live in the most remote corners of it.

Just over half of the residents in Montana’s first district live in metropolitan areas, like the small city of Billings. Notice that we start running into problems when we conflate small population sizes with rurality.

Rhode Island’s first district is another good example. Within the borders of this district is about half of the capital city of Providence and other small cities like Pawtucket and Newport. With a population of 548,000 residents, Rhode Island’s first district is the third smallest district in the country, but only about 2.5% of residents in this district live in a Census-defined rural community.

So, where do the majority of rural voters live, if not in the nation’s smallest (overrepresented) districts?

The majority of rural voters live in districts composed primarily of urban and suburban voters. Only about 28% of rural voters live in a district where over half of the population in the district is also rural. That means that 72% of rural voters live in urban or suburban districts. And only 10% of districts are majority rural.

Not All Definitions of Rural Were Created Equal

I’ve been referring to the Census definition of rurality for this analysis so far. But there isn’t one right definition of rural.

In their book on rural voters, Tom Schaller and Paul Waldman say that rural voters hold outsized political power in the House of Representatives by controlling more than their fair share of house seats.

Waldman and Schaller use the Congressional Density Index, or the CDI, to define rural, which is based on population density at the census tract level. (Census tracts are larger in area than blocks, and they can vary widely in size.)

The CDI first categorizes census tracts by population density, then places those tracts into congressional districts that are given one of the following labels: pure rural, rural-suburban mix, sparse suburban, dense suburban, urban-suburban, and pure urban.

The CDI is a widely used index, and journalists refer to it for all kinds of congressional analyses. It might be helpful to understand how population density predicts voting patterns, but it’s just not a good way to describe rurality. To illustrate, let’s take a look at some of the districts in the CDI’s pure rural category.

(Note that the CDI was created in 2018 and is based on congressional maps from that year, not the current maps.)

One of the most egregious examples in the CDI’s pure rural category is New Mexico’s third district, which includes the entire city of Sante Fe, Farmington, and most of Rio Rancho. According to the Census, however, only 34% of this district is rural.

Another one of the CDI’s pure rural districts is North Carolina’s eighth, which includes half of the city of Fayetteville and the northeastern suburbs of Charlotte, among other smaller metropolitan areas. This district is only 33% rural according to the Census definition.

The average pure rural category in the CDI is only 53% rural according to the Census, but it contains districts that are up to 78% urban. Geographers don’t always agree on what definition of rural is best, but in what universe is a 78% urban district purely rural?

Flipping a Myth on Its Head

The CDI definition of rural distorts the reality of congressional representation because it inflates the number of districts controlled by rural voters. Under the CDI system, 42% of districts are either pure rural or a rural-suburban mix, something that Waldman and Schaller point out in their book. Compare that number to the 10% of districts that are rural based on the Census definition.

Look at it this way. If rural Americans make up 20% of the population, but only 10% of districts are majority rural, that would seem to suggest that the rural vote is actually diluted by the votes of their urban and suburban neighbors. That flips the myth of rural malapportionment on its head.

How can a rural minority, whose vote is further diluted by urban and suburban voters, dominate the House of Representatives and pose an existential threat to American democracy?

Similar myths about rural representation are also abundant in malapportionment conversations about the Senate and the Electoral College. Subscribe to our newsletter, "The Latest from the Deesmealz," to stay tuned for our upcoming analyses of rurality in the Senate and Electoral College.

Deesmealz reporter Sarah Melotte lives in Western North Carolina and focuses on data reporting.

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.