The immediate reaction to Monday’s census data was to call it a win for Republicans. After all, congressional reapportionment showed a net movement of 3 seats from Democratic to Republican states. But redistricting can turn the changes into a net advantage for either party.
Predicting reapportionment’s consequences is impossible without taking into account the convoluted landscape of redistricting. Every state has its own process for redrawing lines. An accurate tally requires close examination in nerdy detail.
Seven seats changed hands, the smallest shift since 1920, when rural legislators fearful of losing power stopped reapportionment from happening entirely. The resulting changes to the House of Representatives, and the corresponding Electoral College votes, are therefore small by historical standards. That said, in 2022 Republicans need to pick up only five seats to retake the U.S. House of Representatives. So the fate of just a handful of seats has attracted considerable attention.
It may seem surprising, but states that are losing seats may end up giving the Democrats a net gain of two to four seats.
The states losing seats seem — at first — bad for Democrats: California, Michigan, Illinois, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia. Except for Ohio and West Virginia, these states were won by Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden says he didn't 'overpromise' Finland PM pledges 'extremely tough' sanctions should Russia invade Ukraine Russia: Nothing less than NATO expansion ban is acceptable MORE in 2020. And since electoral votes for the presidency are dependent on House seats, Democrats will lose ground in the Electoral College. But allocations within the House are a different story. With educated speculation we can estimate possible outcomes.
Many of the losses cancel each other out. California, the largest state, lost a congressional seat for the first time. Its current delegation of 42 Democrats and 11 Republicans — along with the fact that redistricting is done by an independent commission — makes it likely that Democrats will lose one seat. Meanwhile the all-Republican state of West Virginia lost one congressional seat. Net change: zero.
In each decade since 1950, New York and Pennsylvania lost congressional seats, as part of America’s southwestward migration. In the Empire State, Democrats control redistricting and will likely eliminate a GOP seat. But in Pennsylvania, where control is bipartisan, the Congressional delegation is currently 9-9, and geography favors Republicans, it seems likely that a Democratic seat will be eliminated. Net change: zero, again.
At this point we encounter some surprises.
First, thanks to an egregious partisan gerrymander, Ohio currently elects 12 Republicans and 4 Democrats to Congress. Fair districting standards in Ohio’s constitution suggest that reapportionment will cause the lost seat to be a Republican. Democrats may even pick up an additional seat or two simply by the reduction of bias in the map. Score that as two seats, plus or minus, for Democrats.
No such fairness standards constrain Illinois legislators. Their existing map contains lopsided wins for Democrats. Normally a disadvantage for the party in power, these districts provide a reservoir of votes that gives them the freedom to eliminate one of the 5 Republican districts in the northern part of the state. Tentatively, this is a loss for Republicans.
Finally, Michigan’s lost seat has the least clear fate. Voters in 2018 established an independent commission to draw lines without political interference. The state’s Congressional delegation can change in either direction, perhaps becoming more competitive for both parties.
Now we turn to the states set to gain: Colorado, Oregon, Montana, Florida, North Carolina, and Texas (two seats).
Colorado and Oregon may cancel one another, due to nonpartisan and bipartisan processes. Colorado, a Democratic-leaning state, has a congressional delegation of 4 Democrats, 3 Republicans. An independent commission will probably add a seat that ends up Democratic. Oregon is currently represented by 4 Democrats and 1 Republican. And while the legislature is Democrat-dominated, a recent deal has given Republicans equal say in redistricting. The added seat will probably go GOP. Net effect: zero.
Montana had one at-large congressional seat, but growth in Bozeman, Missoula, and elsewhere helped restore a second seat for the first time since 1993. Like Colorado, California, and Michigan, the state has an independent redistricting commission. One new district could very well be competitive. Net change in partisan power? Maybe zero.
The last three states are more complex.
In Texas, single-party Republican control, coupled with a census that probably undercounted Hispanics, might make you expect two new Republican seats — but given the long-term Democratic trend of the state, it might be prudent not to stretch Republican votes so thin. In 2020, six Republican-held seats were decided by margins of seven points or less. An overly aggressive map could well backfire. More likely is a gain of one seat for each party — for zero net change.
In North Carolina, Republicans have the power to draw districts. The current map, the result of a state Supreme Court order, elected 8 Republicans and 5 Democrats. Consistent with past behavior, Republicans may want to draw a 10 Republican, 4 Democrat map, a total shift of two seats to the Republicans. Democrats, however, still have a majority on the State Supreme Court, and could overturn it.
Lastly, we come to Florida. Republicans are again in a position to draw a partisan gerrymander. Score a net gain of at least two seats for Republicans. But the state constitution mandates equitable treatment, including a 2010 constitutional amendment for fair districting, so these gains may not be the last word.
In short, Republicans may net four or more seats in states where seats have been added. But much of this gain is offset in states losing seats. The overall change may even favor Democrats.
In the face of such a small net change, it is more important than ever for citizens to get involved in redistricting. None of these changes is fated — and in many cases, the potential arises to draw districts that represent citizens more fairly. Citizens can make public comment and express their own priorities with mapping tools such as Dave’s Redistricting App and Representable.org. In the redistricting battles that will occur this fall, citizen engagement may decide Congressional control in 2022.
Sam Wang (@SamWangPhD) is a professor of neuroscience at Princeton University and directs the Princeton Gerrymandering Project. Zachariah Sippy (@ZachariahSippy) is an analyst at the Princeton Gerrymandering Project.