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Why does Minnesota have 201 legislators?

On Tuesday, the Minnesota Legislative session convened and all 67 state Senators and 134 Representatives descended on St. Paul to (maybe) get some things done.

Add 67 and 134 and what do you get? 201 legislators, each duly elected by the citizens of Minnesota to represent their best interests at the statehouse.

But 201? That’s 69 more legislators than you’d find across the border in comparably-sized Wisconsin, and it’s 81 more than the number found in California, a state with seven times Minnesota’s population.

Why so many legislators?

Territorial days

When Minnesota first became a territory of the United States government in 1849, a proclamation of then-Gov. Alexander Ramsey organized into nine “council” seats (later the Senate) and 18 House seats, for a total of 27 legislative districts.

A map showing 1849 territorial Legislature districts.
1849 apportionment. Source: "Legislative reapportionment in Minnesota," (1956)/Courtesy of the Minnesota Legislative Reference Library
A map showing 1849 territorial Legislature districts.
The distribution of those seats was a bit haphazard compared to what Minnesotans are used to today.  In territorial and early statehood days, some districts had several members serving them, while others had just one.

For example, an 1849 map shows Stillwater, its own district, had one councilor and three representatives; St. Paul had two councilors and four representatives.

As the territory grew, it added some legislative seats. By the end of the territorial era, the state had 15 Council members and 38 House members.

Adding seats

According to the Minnesota Constitution, it’s the job of the Minnesota Legislature to decide how many seats it has: “The number of members who compose the senate and house of representatives shall be prescribed by law. The representation in both houses shall be apportioned equally throughout the different sections of the state in proportion to the population thereof,” it says.

In the decades that followed statehood the number of Minnesota legislative districts would change frequently. Sometimes, changes followed a growing population recorded in the decennial Census, which still triggers the redrawing of district lines to this day.

In the early days, legislative seats were often tied to counties, and the changing size of the Legislature seems to have been sometimes tied to Minnesota’s growing number of counties, said Eric Ostermeier, a research fellow at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs’ Center for the Study of Politics and Governance.

Other times, the number of seats declined in apportionment, for reasons that aren’t always clear.

Here are some highlights in Minnesota’s legislative apportionment history, per Ostermeier, the Minnesota Historical Society and the Legislative Reference Library:

1858: 37 Senate / 80 House

1860:  21 Senate / 42 House

Why did the number of seats basically halve? Our research didn’t unearth an explanation.

At this point, the arrangement of districts became slightly more organized, with each Senate district having only one member instead of some having multiples, Ostermeier said. Not so with the House.

1866: 22 Senate / 47 House

1871: 41 Senate / 106 House

1881: 47 Senate / 103 House

1889: 54 Senate / 114 House (19 House districts are single-member districts, around 20 are multi-member districts where each rep ran at-large, meaning they represented the whole district and not just part of it, and the others represented portions of a larger Senate district, Ostermeier said).

Otter Tail County, for example, had one senator and four reps, all elected at-large, likely making for some interesting elections.

“So you would have a Republican and a Democrat and then it could be a populist and a prohibition candidate, and there would be one nominee for each of those parties, running against each other in four discrete elections,” Ostermeier said: the potential for 16 candidates from four parties running for four at-large seats.

1897: 63 Senate / 119 House

1913: 67 Senate (sound familiar?) / 130 House

A 1913 Legislative district map
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
A 1913 Legislative district map
The 1913 districting plan, drawn up in the wake of the 1910 Census, held without major changes for the next four decades, despite legal actions that sought to overturn it. Without redrawn lines, the populations of districts became wildly uneven as the Twin Cities grew over the years, prompting a 1946 headline in the National Municipal Review to proclaim “Minnesota Farmers Rule Cities.”

“Ideally, there should be one senator for each 41,676 inhabitats but at present the number of inhabitants per senator range from 17,653 to 128,501,” the author wrote. House districts varied in population from 7,254 to 64,250.

It was years before anything was done to fix that, but there were some small changes (a 135th House member was added in 1959) and some organizational changes: In the ’60s, most House districts adopted the A and B pattern still used today (though district 15, in south-central Minnesota, was sliced into three — A, B and C — for three elections between 1966 and 1970, Ostermeier said).

In the 1960s, U.S. Supreme Court rulings cracked down on uneven districts, as many states failed to reapportion to account for population shifts.

In Baker v. Carr, a 1962 case out of Tennessee, the U.S. Supreme Court held that federal courts could intervene in constitutional challenges to state redistricting plans. In 1964’s Reynolds v. Sims, a case filed in response to Alabama not reapportioning since 1903 despite population changes, the U.S. Supreme Court held that both houses of bicameral legislatures such as Minnesota’s had to be apportioned substantially due to population size.

A Legislative manual from 1967-68 shows districts 15A, 15B and 15C.
Source: Legislative Reference Library
A Legislative manual from 1967-68 shows districts 15A, 15B and 15C.
Seeking to make Minnesota’s districts better represent the state’s population, an early ’70s federal court plan suggested Minnesota slim down to 35 Senate seats and 105 House seats that more evenly distributed representation, Ostermeier said.

Likely not wanting to lose their jobs, the then-202 legislators came up to a revision of  the plan that would bring the legislature down to 201 more proportional districts — 67 in the Senate and 134 in the House, numbers that have stuck ever since.

Too many?

So is 201 seats a lot compared to other states?

Kind of. Minnesota ranks 14th among U.S. states by land area and 22nd for population. But it has the fifth largest legislature overall, including the single biggest Senate and the 12th biggest House of Representatives.

Detail from a 1951 map shows four representatives for Otter Tail County, which had a population of 30,700.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Detail from a 1951 map shows four representatives for Otter Tail County, which had a population of about 52,000 in 1950. Hennepin County had 16 representatives and nearly 670,000 people.
The state with the most legislative seats total is New Hampshire (24 Senate/400 House), and the state with the least Nebraska, which has the country’s only unicameral (one-bodied) legislature, with 49 seats.

Proponents of large legislatures say more legislatures means a smaller legislator: constituent ratio, making members more responsive. They say a bigger legislature allows for more viewpoints and they point to the cost of a legislature having more to do with the state’s population than the number of seats, according to the National Council of State Legislatures. Opponents say even if legislators have more constituents, it’s easier than ever for them to communicate with them. They also say more legislators cost more money, and that more members make for worse debates.

So is 201 too much?

Some people think so.

Every once-in-a-while, a proposal to reduce the number of legislative seats surfaces.

One method sometimes proposed over the years is going unicameral: having just one legislative body instead of two. The only U.S. state that currently has a unicameral legislature is Nebraska.

In his 1999 State of the State address, Gov. Jesse Ventura proposed Minnesota trim its legislature down to one body. The idea gained some traction with lawmakers, but ultimately went nowhere.

In 2018, Rep. Nick Zerwas and Sen. Scott Jensen proposed cutting the number of seats down to 147 — 49 senators and 98 House members. They hoped to put the question to voters, but the bill died.

Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by Dennis Litfin on 02/12/2020 - 02:24 pm.

    Great question Greta. We do need fewer legislators in this State. By going Unicameral, with quality representatives rather than fence riders as we have now, the legislature might actually get something done for the people it is supposed to serve.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 02/13/2020 - 12:34 pm.

      If we don’t have “quality legislators” now, what makes you think making the Legislature smaller will improve matters.

      The quality of lawmakers is the responsibility of the voters, not the system.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 02/17/2020 - 01:42 pm.

      Why in god’s name would a smaller or unicameral legislature have better representatives? You would just have more people electing each legislator, making the influence of money even more powerful.

  2. Submitted by Patrick Coleman on 02/12/2020 - 02:39 pm.

    Very Fun! Thanks for the history lesson.

  3. Submitted by Don Casey on 02/12/2020 - 03:09 pm.

    If a large legislature is such a good thing, why not adopt the New Hampshire model? 400 House members, 24 in the Senate. (New Hampshire is 42nd in population, 46th in area)..

    Think of the opportunities to have access to “your” legislator!

    There’s even more to admire about the New Hampshire approach. Sessions limited to 45 days, all legislators paid $200 per biennium ($100 a year). No per diems. But they can pad their pay with special sessions — $3 a day, limit 15 days. Pay has been unchanged since 1889.

    More representation at much less expense! ;o)

  4. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 02/13/2020 - 08:55 am.

    I am in favor of cutting their pay, cutting the length of sessions, cutting their number, and cutting their budgets.

  5. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 02/13/2020 - 09:46 am.

    I’m mostly (though not entirely) the opposite of Mr. Gotzman.

    If it were up to me, and of course it isn’t, I’d increase the legislative session to a year-round one. We should stop pretending that a state of 5+ million people and a budget of billions of dollars can be governed by part-timers taking a break from planting and harvesting – which was still the norm a century ago.

    Making the job of the legislature a full-time one, I’d also increase the salary of legislators to something approaching the median income of the state’s citizens. I don’t want to be governed by plutocrats, but I also don’t want legislators to be so poorly-compensated that they’re even easier prey for lobbyists.

    The one area where I might agree with Mr. Gotzman is that I’d be OK with reducing the number of legislators, and even moving to a unicameral legislature, though that obviously would require a major revision of the state constitution – with all the hysteria and hassle such a move would likely produce. Since the session is the same length for both Senators and House members, I’m not convinced that Senators deserve special compensation in the form of longer terms of office, which adds a (small) bit to the argument in favor of a one-house legislature.

    Cutting legislative budgets simply means they’ll have a more difficult time doing what we’ve elected them to do. It’s punitive for no particular or good reason except a dislike of government in general – it’s an ideological position rather than a response to a specific problem.

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