Census data kicks off partisan brawl in statehouses over U.S. House seats

By: - April 29, 2021 12:10 am

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WASHINGTON — The announcement of which states will lose and gain U.S. House districts in 2023 was the opening bell for the cutthroat, once-a-decade process of redrawing district boundaries.

The results of the state-level fights now unfolding will shape not only the partisan makeup of each congressional delegation, but also help determine whether Democrats can retain their narrow grip controlling the House of Representatives. That in turn affects action on policy ranging from gun control to immigration to voting rights—including how fast Democrats move this year in trying to pass their priorities.

Redistricting also will affect the Electoral College votes at stake in 2024, as each state’s electoral votes for president are based on the number of lawmakers it has in Congress.

An initial analysis of Monday’s data from the Census suggests a boost for Republicans, albeit a small one. Had the 2020 presidential election been held under the new allocation of congressional seats, President Joe Biden would have won the White House with 303, rather than 306, electoral votes, according to David Wasserman, an analyst with the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

States key to Biden’s victory, such as Pennsylvania and Michigan, are set to lose congressional districts, while Colorado, which also backed Biden, will pick up another seat.

Texas, Florida and North Carolina, which voted for former President Donald Trump, are set to gain a collective four seats. Ohio, which also favored Trump, will lose a seat.

When it comes to congressional math, the early accounting also is better for the GOP, though there’s a high degree of uncertainty on the scale of that impact. Wasserman’s analysis projects Republicans could pick up three to four seats  solely from the ripple effects of the reapportionment process.

That’s not much, but Democrats currently have just two votes more than the 216 needed to pass bills in that chamber.  Another Democrat, Troy Carter, won a Louisiana special election on Saturday, and when he is sworn in that will bring the party split to 219-212 with four vacant seats.

Kyle Kondik, an elections analyst with the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, also projected that Republicans could see most of the gains under the new lines.

GOP officials will control the map-drawing process in Texas, Florida, and North Carolina, and will be favored to gain in Montana and Oregon as well, for an edge in six of the seven new seats being drawn, he said.

“On balance, Republicans should benefit from these changes — not necessarily by doing better in the states losing seats, but rather by potentially picking up the lion’s share of the new seats in the states gaining districts,” Kondik wrote.

Who controls the maps?

A critical factor is which party gets to draw the lines in each state. Democrats have the final authority to draw for more districts than they did in 2011, 75 districts in the current process compared to 44 in 2011, according to Wasserman.

But Republicans will hold the pen in drawing far more —187 districts, down from 219 in 2011, he added. The remainder will be drawn either by bipartisan commissions, as is the case in Colorado and Michigan, or in states where control is split between the parties.

That’s the case in Pennsylvania, where Republicans control the Legislature, but the Democratic governor can (and likely will) veto the GOP-drawn congressional maps, throwing the process to the courts.

A national Democratic redistricting group affiliated with former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder already filed suit in PennsylvaniaMinnesota and Louisiana, asking state courts to prepare now to step in and ensure a timely map is crafted after what the group predicts will be a partisan stalemate.

Pennsylvania’s top court redrew the state’s congressional map in 2018, after finding the one drawn in 2011 to be unconstitutional. That shifted the state’s delegation from 13 Republicans and five Democrats to an even nine-to-nine split.

Those lawsuits were the first to be filed in what’s usually a litigious process, and Marc Elias, an attorney representing the National Redistricting Action Fund, wrote on Twitter: “They will not be the last.”

A spokesman for the National Republican Redistricting Trust sought to downplay the lawsuits, calling them “expensive press releases.”

The number of districts in a state and the political leanings of those drawing the lines are just two of many factors at play.

Another critical factor will be the granular data on where the population has shifted, which won’t be available from the Census Bureau until at least August.

That data will clarify which areas are growing, and may be a spot to add a district. A North Carolina state senator has bet on that prospect, filing campaign paperwork months before the state was guaranteed a 14th district, as North Carolina Policy Watch has reported.

It also will show which districts need to gain the most people to create districts that are roughly equal in size. Under the new congressional districts, each member of the House will represent an average of 761,000 residents.

Those shifts will have ripple effects across each map, creating uncertainty as challengers wait to see if their home may end up in the district of an incumbent from the  same party, or in a much more competitive seat than expected.

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Laura Olson
Laura Olson

Laura covers the nation's capital as a senior reporter for States Newsroom, a network of nonprofit outlets that includes Ohio Capital Journal. Her areas of coverage include politics and policy, lobbying, elections, and campaign finance.

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