The release of detailed local data from the U.S. census this week demonstrated that the country is diversifying and urbanizing more quickly than many had believed, and those results have real consequences for what Congress will look like throughout the coming decade.
In general, the news was good for the Democratic Party. It suggests that some of the anticipated losses in the 2022 elections may be mitigated slightly by population growth in large metropolitan areas, which tend to vote for Democrats, and a decline in rural populations, which tend to favor the Republican Party.
In his analysis for The Cook Political Report, David Wasserman wrote that "although Republicans hold more sway in redistricting, Democrats have to be pretty happy with today's results."
Drawing new congressional maps
The decennial count of the American people is used for many purposes, but one of the most visible is the apportionment of seats in the House of Representatives. While every state's allotment of senators is fixed at two, the size of their respective House delegations varies with population.
Because the 435 House districts are required to be numerically similar in population, every new census necessitates the redrawing of the boundaries to assure roughly equal representation across all districts. After the 2010 census, districts had, on average, about 711,000 people. After redistricting based on the 2020 census, that average will increase to about 761,000 people.
Drawing those maps is a politically fraught process. Activists have raged for years about the practice of gerrymandering — partisan redistricting in which the party in power draws maps that concentrate voters of the other party into a small number of districts in order to minimize its representation in Congress. Gerrymandering remains standard practice in more than half the country.
Republicans favored to take House
Electoral maps are drawn at the state level. The process broadly favors Republicans at the moment because the party completely controls redistricting in 20 states with a total of 187 congressional districts. Democrats, by contrast, completely control just eight states, with 75 districts. (Ten states use independent commissions to draw district lines; in six others, Democrats and Republicans each control one house of the state legislature, which means neither side has an obvious upper hand in drawing up new districts.)
Earlier this year, when the census reported the number of House seats that each state would have in the coming decade, Republicans were elated to see that those gaining seats — Texas (2), Florida, North Carolina, Colorado, Montana and Oregon — were almost all GOP-friendly. Those losing seats included Democratic strongholds such as California, New York and Illinois, along with swing states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan. (West Virginia, a reliably Republican state, also lost a seat.)
Experts analyzing those numbers immediately forecast a significant gain for Republicans. Using voting data from recent years, they determined that simply by gerrymandering a handful of states, the GOP could all but guarantee a Republican takeover of the House of Representatives in 2022.
Congressional Democrats have been struggling to pass a law that would outlaw partisan gerrymandering as well as implement various measures to make voting easier, but it is unclear whether that legislation will pass at all, much less in time to affect the 2022 elections.
GOP advantage blunted
While the numbers released by the census this week don't really change the likelihood of a Republican House of Representatives after the 2022 elections, they do make it clear that the task will not be as easy for the GOP as many had thought. Also, carving the party a path to long-term majority status will be even more difficult.
Lawmakers drawing the new maps understand that the districts they draw will have to endure for a decade, and that demographic change doesn't stop when the new lines are drawn. Because of the explosive growth of metro areas in states such as Texas and Georgia, suburban congressional districts that Republicans can win in the near term might not remain winnable for long.
"One of the things that map drawers in places like Texas or Georgia have to be wary of is spreading themselves too thin in an effort to grab a maximal number of seats in 2022," said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato's Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics. "Maybe you win some extra seats in 2022, but you can't hold them in the future, and the maps unravel."
In his analysis of the new data, The Cook Political Report's Wasserman said that in Texas, for example, the new data might push GOP lawmakers to aim for a more conservative map that gives Republicans a likely 25-13 advantage in the state's House delegation rather than a 27-11 map that would be more difficult to preserve over the long run.
Wasserman also pointed out that the data may also make it more difficult for Republicans to defend especially aggressive redistricting in court.
While both parties engage in gerrymandering to the extent they are able, the way different ethnic groups in the country vote — with minorities tending to lean toward Democrats — makes the process particularly delicate for Republicans.
When they draw maps to concentrate Democratic voters and limit their representation, the practical effect can come perilously close to racial discrimination. In recent years, courts have forced states to redraw boundaries that were determined to be drawn on the basis of race.
"Ultimately, Democrats hope today's data, which showed marked declines in the non-Hispanic white share of the population in the vast majority of states, will strengthen their hand in inevitable lawsuits against GOP-drawn maps in Texas, Florida, North Carolina, Georgia and elsewhere," Wasserman wrote. "The battle for the House may hinge on how receptive judges are to arguments that additional minority opportunity seats should be drawn."