On The Trail: Census data kicks off the biggest redistricting fight in American history

U.S. Capitol
Greg Nash

The first data from the 2020 U.S. census released Monday kicks off a new phase in perhaps the most consequential political battle of the next decade as Republicans and Democrats get to work drawing legislative and congressional district maps that will help determine which side holds power. 

The census figures showed an America still feeling the effects of the Great Recession of more than a decade ago, as more people stayed in place, fewer families had children and the steady flow of immigrants from overseas gently ebbed.

Just seven seats in the U.S. House of Representatives changed hands: Texas will see its delegation grow by two seats. Montana, Oregon, Colorado, North Carolina and Florida will add one seat each. California, Illinois, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia will all lose a representative in Congress.

It was the smallest shift of any decade since the Commerce Department adopted the modern means of reapportioning U.S. House districts in 1941, brought on in part by the slowest growth in the population of any decade since the 1930s. The population of the United States grew by 7.4 percent over the past decade, to 331.5 million residents. 

The growth that did happen is almost certainly making America a more diverse nation. White Americans are aging and having fewer children, while higher proportions of Black, Hispanic and Asian Americans are in prime child-bearing years, according to earlier estimates from the Census Bureau. 

“Almost all of this growth is being driven by communities of color,” said Michael Li, a senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice’s Democracy Program.  

On its face, the subtle shift will marginally benefit Republican candidates for president: Former President Trump carried four of the six states that will add to their electoral college totals. President Biden carried five of the seven states that will lose a seat.

“You’re seeing that people are fleeing the Northeast and they’re now leaving California and they’re going to low-tax red states,” said Adam Kincaid, executive director of the National Republican Redistricting Trust, an outside group that will coordinate GOP efforts to draw favorable maps.

But the real consequences will reveal themselves in the coming months, when the Census Bureau gives states block-level population data that allows them to draw new district boundaries, even in states that did not gain or lose seats. 

Though Democrats control the U.S. House of Representatives, Republicans will have an edge when new maps are crafted. Republicans hold complete control of the redistricting process in 19 states that will send a combined 184 members to Congress. Democrats own complete control of the process in just eight states that send 75 members to Congress. 

The two parties share power in nine states, and seven states will turn to independent commissions to draw boundary lines. Six states will have only one at-large representative in Congress.

The redistricting process that will take place in the next year will be the most watched, and probably the most litigated, in American history. Public anger at gerrymandered maps in states like Maryland, North Carolina, Texas and Florida over the past decade has spurred a renewed focus on a game that once played out in closed-door, smoke-filled rooms. 

The two parties have pumped millions of dollars into modern committees that will angle for every vote — the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, a group spearheaded by former Attorney General Eric Holder, has raised more than $80 million since its inception in 2017. And the average person can now get involved, with free software to tinker with and submit to legislators their own maps.

At the same time the redistricting process gets more attention than ever, the legislators who hold the pens will face fewer guardrails than ever. A critical Supreme Court ruling in 2019, Rucho v. Common Cause, held that federal courts had no jurisdiction over alleged partisan gerrymanders, allowing legislators to draw maps as they see fit.

The block-level data will give each party the ability to tinker with marginal or competitive districts to give their side an advantage. In a state like Georgia, where Republicans hold the levers of state government, the GOP could target Reps. Lucy McBath (D) and Carolyn Bourdeaux (D), who hold suburban districts recently controlled by Republicans.  

In a state like Oregon, where Democrats are in charge, the party could draw a new sixth district that helps shore up a potentially vulnerable incumbent like Rep. Peter DeFazio, a rare Democrat who represents a district Trump carried in 2020. And in New York and Illinois, Democrats could use their control to draw a sitting Republican out of a district.

States expect to receive their block-level data by the end of September, giving legislators just a few months to craft maps that will determine the future of American democracy for the next decade to come. Those maps will be bathed in the bright sunshine of transparency, though many legislators see little disadvantage in maximizing their own prospects.

“They have this window between now and August, September to get a lot of the legwork done,” Li said.

On The Trail is a reported column by Reid Wilson.

Tags Census Donald Trump Eric Holder Gerrymandering Joe Biden Lucy McBath Peter DeFazio reapportionment Redistricting

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