The Rust Belt is leaking its congressional seats. New York will have fewer members of Congress than at any time since 1823. And political power — in the form of additional US House districts and the Electoral College votes that come with them — continues to accumulate in the Sun Belt and the West.
There were clear winners and losers Monday when the Census Bureau released the decennial apportionment data that determine the size of each state’s congressional delegation. This precedes the crucial redistricting process — the Bureau is expected to deliver the redistricting data to the states by Sept. 30 — that will see every US House and state legislative district redrawn before the 2022 elections — and potentially swing the balance of power from the Democrats and to the GOP.
Moving up: Texas gains two seats, while Colorado, Florida, Montana, North Carolina, and Oregon each add one.
Those gains come at the expense of California, Illinois, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia, which will each lose one seat.
The shift toward red states is clear at the presidential level. States won by President Biden last November (California, Illinois, Michigan, New York, and Pennsylvania) will lose five electors and gain two (Oregon and Colorado). States won by Donald Trump will gain five (Texas, Florida, North Carolina, and Montana) and lose just two (Ohio and West Virginia). Consider what the net shift of three states would have done in the closest presidential election in modern times, George W. Bush’s 271-266 victory over Al Gore in 2000. Held today, that race would not be close at all; states carried by Bush now have 290 electors.
But the partisan dynamic in the US House isn’t as simple. Republicans will hold the upper hand when it comes to redrawing the House. The GOP has complete control of redistricting in 187 congressional seats; Democrats will have power over just 75. The remaining 167 seats will be drawn by commissions, or with both parties in the room. (An additional six states elect only a single member, statewide.) As it stands, Democrats hold 218 seats in the House, the GOP holds 212, and five of the 435 seats stand vacant and are expected to be replaced by four Democrats and one Republican. In the 2022 elections, Republicans will need to flip just five seats to reclaim the House.
While the map allows Democrats limited opportunities to make gains through gerrymandering, Republicans could pick up that many seats and more simply by reinforcing maps in Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Kentucky, and North Carolina. Democratic congressional candidates won some 4.7 million more votes than Republicans in 2020, but gerrymandering, in part, translated that into a razor-thin majority easily undone before 2022 by shifting a handful of district lines.
Much of this power can be traced back to the last redistricting cycle, after the 2010 elections, when Republicans launched a program called the Redistricting Majority Project — or REDMAP — and focused on capturing all-important state legislative chambers in swing states, and those likely to gain or lose congressional seats. They’ve yet to lose any of those chambers, including Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania or Wisconsin, in any election since, even when Democratic candidates win more votes.
Republicans, however, might not have gained as much as it appears through reapportionment. That’s because, for example, while New York and Illinois lose seats in Congress, the Democrats hold the pen in those states, and could simply eliminate a Republican district. If Republicans award themselves the two new seats in Texas, that would simply shift two red seats.
It’s a complicated story in the other five states losing seats as well. Republicans hold all three seats in West Virginia; they’ll lose one there. But it’s not certain which party will lose out in any of the other states. In Pennsylvania, a Democratic governor and Republican legislature share power over the map. The state supreme court — controlled by Democrats, and which invalidated a 2011 GOP gerrymander that handed Republicans 13 of 18 seats as unconstitutional — holds the tiebreaker.
After an egregious GOP gerrymander last cycle, Michigan voters amended the state constitution and handed redistricting over to an independent commission. While the state loses a seat, the map is certain to be more fair. Ohio also reformed its process following a wild partisan gerrymander that locked in a 12-4 GOP edge; while Republicans will dominate the commission, some observers believe that new protections against unnecessarily dividing communities will make it difficult for them to draw a 12-3 map. California also uses a commission.
How about the states gaining seats? Republicans have complete power over the coming decade’s map in Texas, North Carolina, and Florida, and officials have made no secret that they intend to wield it as aggressively as they did in 2011.
The other seats could be competitive. Colorado voters adopted an independent commission to draw lines after Democrats there overran the process in 2011. Both parties in Oregon have entered into a power sharing agreement to draw the new congressional map. Montana uses a commission as well, and many Democrats believe they’d be competitive in a new district in the fast-growing western part of the state.
Indeed, Republicans could come to rue the 2020 Census as a missed opportunity and a self-inflicted error by Donald Trump. Early estimates had suggested that Texas might gain three seats, that Florida might pick up two, and that Arizona could add one. But Trump-led efforts to add a citizenship question to the census could have resulted in an undercount of Latino voters in all three states, and GOP governors in Texas and Florida notably waited until the last minute to fund outreach efforts.
Democrats, meanwhile, could regret not finding the additional 89 New Yorkers that would have prevented the Empire State from losing any representation at all.
It’s yet another reminder that in a closely divided nation — and within a system where Republicans have either gamed or inherited a structural advantage that allows them to regularly win majorities of seats with a minority of votes — that the tiniest shifts can have outsized implications.
David Daley is author of “Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count” and “Unrigged: How Americans Are Battling Back to Save Democracy.” He is a senior fellow at FairVote.