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Reapportionment after census could shake up swing districts

Latest Census Bureau estimates hint at which states may gain or lose seats

Will the New York district represented by Democratic Rep. Anthony Brindisi still exist after the 2020 census? (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Will the New York district represented by Democratic Rep. Anthony Brindisi still exist after the 2020 census? (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Candidates and political parties have started multimillion-dollar struggles for control of congressional districts that, according to an analysis of Census Bureau data, may not exist in two years.

The latest Census Bureau population estimates suggest that a handful of states, including Illinois, California and New York, may lose seats in Congress after the 2020 count. That could make victories in some of the hardest-fought congressional races fleeting, a rare occurrence in an institution that favors incumbents, as newly minted representatives find themselves out of a job just two years later.

[Census estimates: Redistricting ahead for California, New York and Texas]

Kim Brace, president of Election Data Services, said the numbers reflect long-term trends as rural areas empty out into growing cities and suburbs. 

“The rural population and the rural power is basically diminishing very dramatically. I think you see that in Congress,” Brace said.

That will spell trouble for whoever wins in districts like New York’s 22nd, currently represented by Democrat Anthony Brindisi, whose reelection is rated a Toss-up by Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales. The district stretches from the Pennsylvania border to Lake Ontario and includes the cites of Binghamton and Utica. According to the latest census estimates, it also may be the smallest district in a state primed to lose a congressional seat.

Whoever wins the race for the 22nd, and other districts in states set to lose congressional clout, may soon find themselves without a place to call a political home. After the 2010 census, 10 states — all aside from Louisiana were in the North and Midwest — lost a combined 12 seats to Southern and Western states. That preceded a flood of retirements in states like New York and Ohio that lost seats in the reapportionment. A decade earlier, a similar set of 10 states lost their seats.

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However, nothing is certain when it comes to the census and redistricting process.

The numbers released Dec. 30 by the Census Bureau represent the best guess at the current population for states in 2019. The final numbers will come from the enumeration that formally begins Jan. 21 in Alaska. The Census Bureau faces a December deadline to count about 330 million  American residents and finalize its distribution of all 435 congressional seats, followed by the mapmaking data a few months later.

But inconsistent census results, from problems with the internet response option or lingering fear from the fight over a citizenship question, could shake up the final tally of congressional seats. Those uncertainties, along with the fluid factors involved in the political line-drawing process, make the fate of seats like Brindisi’s uncertain.

Overall, 10 of the 71 seats with races rated competitive by Inside Elections are in states projected to lose congressional seats after 2020: Alabama, California, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and West Virginia. 

The impending changes may not be at the forefront for today’s political campaigns, though. One Republican campaign strategist involved in House races said there are too many unknowns to affect 2020 races: “We don’t play in hypotheticals, which is why we are focused on recruiting candidates who will deliver for their districts and help us win back the majority this cycle.”

Shrinking delegations

For several states, the margin that determines the loss of a seat can be just a few thousand people, according to the EDS analysis.

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. That kind of investment may make the difference in the final census count, said Justin Levitt, a Loyola Law School professor.

“They are hoping to preserve or poach a seat at [a] state like Texas’ expense,” he said. “That is relying on Texas’ own underinvestment in census outreach.”

Democrats in Congress, particularly Oversight and Reform Chairwoman Carolyn B. Maloney of New York, have expressed concerns about the administration’s census efforts. They’ve questioned whether the census will undercount growing minority communities in places like Texas to the benefit of majority white residents.

Census data suggests that much of the growth over the decade has come from minority and immigrant groups, frequently referred to as “hard to count,” and previous census efforts have missed millions of them.

Growth over the decade has made for substantial variation in the size of districts — 2018 data shows that districts in Alabama vary by 50,000 or more residents. The composition of new maps won’t be determined simply by erasing the current smallest district, Brace said.

“There are a whole bunch of factors that come into play,” he said, pointing to Alabama’s 2nd District, currently represented by retiring Republican Rep. Martha Roby.

Other considerations include local politics and majority-minority districts. Such districts have legal protections under the Voting Rights Act, which Brace, Levitt and others say will be a factor for the new maps.

Drawing new districts can force retirements or head-to-head contests between existing representatives, even within parties: New maps in 2012 set Democrats Marcy Kaptur against Dennis J. Kucinich in Ohio and Republicans Adam Kinzinger against Don Manzullo in Illinois. Kaptur and Kinzinger won those primaries, and both still serve in the House.

Levitt said New York City has the highest concentration of minority voters, as well as the majority of its state’s growth. Other districts near Brindisi’s, the 19th and 23rd, also have among the lowest populations in the state, making it harder to draw coherent districts in the area.

“Population trends indicate that population loss is upstate and, if anything, the minority population in places like New York City is growing,” Levitt said.

New York, Illinois and other states losing their congressional seats depend on the count coming in for states like Texas.

The Lone Star State, along with Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Montana, North Carolina and Oregon, may gain seats after the 2020 census, according to the EDS analysis. 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 lawyer 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 projections 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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