The Census Bureau gave a peek at a coming battle within states nationwide over the shape of the country’s congressional district map, with its latest population estimates hinting at fights within Texas, New York, California, Alabama and other states.
Those estimates give demographers and mapmakers the last hint of how the 2020 census will divvy up 435 congressional seats nationwide before the agency releases the official results later this year. The results will determine winners and losers for both the distribution of the districts as well as $1.5 trillion in federal funds each year.
The latest projections suggest that Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Montana, North Carolina, Oregon, and Texas may gain seats following the 2020 census, according to an analysis from Election Data Services. Those seat gains would come at the expense of 10 others: Alabama, California, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and West Virginia.
Kim Brace, president of EDS, said the numbers reflect long term trends as rural areas empty out into growing cities and suburbs both within their states and in others.
“The rural population and the rural power is basically diminishing very dramatically I think you see that in Congress,” Brace said.
The numbers released by the Census Bureau on Dec. 30 represent the best guess at the current population for states in 2019; the final numbers will come from the enumeration that begins this month in Alaska. The Census Bureau faces a December deadline to finalize its distribution of all 435 congressional seats, and will release the mapmaking data a few months later.
But inconsistent census results, from problems with the internet response option or fear from the fight over a citizenship question, could shake up the final tally of congressional seats, Brace noted.
“This projection kind of has a couple of asterisks next to it,” he said.
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For several states, the potential to lose a seat emphasizes the stakes for the 2020 census; the margin determining the loss of a seat can be a few thousand people, according to the EDS analysis.
States like California and New York have devoted tremendous census outreach and counting efforts; $180 million worth in the Golden State and $60 million in the Empire State. Justin Levitt, a Loyola Law School professor, said that kind of investment may make the difference in the final census count.
“They are hoping to preserve or poach a seat at [a] state like Texas’ expense,” Levitt said. “That is relying on Texas’ own underinvestment in census outreach.”
The states have substantial variation between the size of their districts — 2018 data shows that districts in Alabama vary by 50,000 or more residents. The composition of new maps won’t simply be determined by erasing the current smallest district, Brace said.
“There are a whole bunch of factors that come into play and it is not always the fact that this is the smallest district for example,” Brace said, pointing to Alabama’s 2nd District, currently represented by retiring Republican Rep. Martha Roby.
“It is not going to get cut off to sent to Mississippi or something like that. It is simply going to be expanded to take in other territory.”
Other considerations, like local politics and majority-minority districts, also come into play. Alabama has one such district, represented by Democrat Rep. Terri A. Sewell, that straddles Montgomery, Birmingham and the state’s western border. Such districts have legal protections under the Voting Rights Act, which Brace, Levitt and others said will be a factor for the new maps.
Drawing new districts can force retirements or head-to-head contests between existing representatives. Brace said the actual line-drawing can go more smoothly when the number of districts shrink, as everyone knows the status quo has changed.
“The drawing of those seats now get a little bit open, people get open to change,” Brace said. “People aren’t saying ‘this is my territory, don’t come for it.’”
Changes from the 2020 census will likely give some states, including Texas, new seats, according to the EDS analysis.
That will mean shrinking districts like Texas’ 22nd district outside of Houston, which the Census Bureau estimated had more than 850,000 people in 2018. The district, currently represented by retiring Republican Rep. Pete Olson, has almost 50,000 residents more than the next largest district in the state.
Paul Smith, of the Campaign Legal Center, said the explosive growth of minority populations in the state — such as Asian Americans in the communities of the current 22nd — should be reflected in the final map as a single coherent district.
“That is a sign of massive population growth in that part of the state, the fair way to do it would be to have that community represented,” Smith said.
Smith also pointed out that with a new map, Texas’ population may support another majority-minority district in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, drawing a map with communities currently represented by Democratic Rep. Marc Veasey.
Ultimately, the actual performance of the census may throw a wrench in the results the mapmakers have to work with, according to Levitt, who worked as an Obama Justice Department attorney on Voting Rights Act issues.
“There are real concerns about the equities for minority communities for Texas and elsewhere that the census count won’t accurately reflect the real population there,” Levitt said. “The projection say two to three seats and a lot of people wonder whether those are going to actually materialize based on the census count.”
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