Home > News > The new census numbers kicked off redistricting. That’s even more complicated than you may realize.
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The new census numbers kicked off redistricting. That’s even more complicated than you may realize.

Here are four things to know.

Last week, the U.S. Census Bureau released its “legacy format” version of census data, the precursor to a more user-friendly format scheduled to be released in late September. The data arrives more than four months late, after difficulties posed by a global pandemic and the Trump administration’s attempts to undermine the process by switching deadlines and omitting undocumented immigrants.

The bureau is required by law to provide the official census count to the states. Once states receive that once-a-decade data, they begin redistricting, in which each state must redraw its congressional boundaries to ensure each district has roughly equal population before they vote for their political representatives in next year’s midterm elections.

This year’s census data shows that the U.S. population is shifting toward the South and West. These shifts have significant political consequences. That data reapportions Congress’s 435 seats, giving states with larger comparative populations more seats, while states that grew more slowly than the national average of 7.4 percent lose seats. For example, the Northern states of Illinois, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia each lost a congressional seat, while the Southern and Western states of Colorado, Florida, Montana, North Carolina and Oregon each gained a seat. Texas gained two seats and, for the first time, California lost one seat.

Redistricting could decide control of Congress

How will those seats’ districts be redrawn? At stake is the balance of power in Congress. How state legislatures draw voting districts’ lines for seats in the House of Representatives will affect which candidates can win and will influence how federal funds are spent in local areas.

In one important shift, census data shows that populations are shifting from urban to suburban areas. This could shift congressional seats away from the cities and give more power to the increasing greater outer suburban population. Depending on how lines are drawn, these “exurbs” could help either Democrats or Republicans. They might offer Democrats new opportunities to win with exurbanites who were once packed into city districts. Or these voters’ influence could be diluted and spread among more conservative suburban districts, potentially sending more Republicans to Congress.

Census data reveals that over the past decade, the rate of population growth has slowed to levels not seen since the 1930s. Most U.S. counties report a loss. But is that accurate? Many community advocates fear that, rather, those lower numbers reveal an undercount of communities of color in particular — which would mean that redistricting could overlook the neighborhoods where those communities lie and could reduce their voting power. Just as important, an undercount would reroute the billions of dollars of federal funding that flow from census data, based on population formulas — potentially reducing funds for communities in need.

Redistricting concerns for communities of color

Even if there was an undercount, the census reports that communities of color have increased. According to its revised formula for counting different groups, Latinos now account for over half the country’s population growth. Asian Americans swelled to 24 million, up 35 percent since 2010, making them the fastest-growing racial group of the U.S. population. The Black population held steady at 12 percent as a share of the overall population.

Most notably, Whites decreased as a proportion of the population by 8.6 percent since 2010. As states begin to redraw district boundaries, some legislatures may attempt to dilute the voting power of historically excluded racialized communities.

The NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and Asian Americans Advancing Justice have announced that they will closely monitor the redistricting process — suggesting they will quickly react to anything they perceive as a potential violation of the Voting Rights Act. Though the Supreme Court struck down key provisions of the law in its 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision, racialized communities can still seek relief under Section 2 of the act — though whether courts will support those claims is unclear.

This might be the way to prove gerrymandering according to the new Supreme Court standard

How will each state handle redistricting?

Each state will handle redistricting in its own way. Traditionally, state legislatures do it behind closed doors, with decisions guided by the majority party’s interests. That often results in gerrymandering in support of incumbents or parties.

Eight states instead operate independent redistricting commissions: Arizona, California, Colorado, Michigan, Montana, Idaho, Washington and New York. These commissions are bipartisan panels of citizens who hold the power the redraw the lines and are independent of elected officials.

States may adopt additional criteria to guide their redistricting. In Montana, the state commission adopted “competitiveness” as a criterion when drawing, an attempt to ensure that districts do not become “safe seats” for one party or another. The idea is that if candidates aren’t sure of reelection, they will reach out more broadly and be more responsive to all constituents. In Ohio and Missouri, the commissions will try to draw legislative districts that have roughly the same proportion of Republicans and Democrats as voted statewide in the most recent election. In some states with diverse populations, these criteria could conflict with the Voting Rights Act, which provides protections to historically excluded communities by creating majority-minority districts.

The consequences of a possible undercount of U.S. residents

Many observers and public officials are concerned that given the difficulties and restraints on collecting the census, many states have undercounted their residents, particularly those in historically excluded and difficult to reach communities. Some states, like California, invested heavily in broad outreach to communities of color, rural communities and immigrants with linguistic needs. Other states, like Texas, failed to build relationships on the ground with such communities’ trusted messengers to encourage more people to respond to the count.

Redistricting might gain Republicans a few seats in Congress. Their real gains will be in state legislatures.

Since Democrats hold a slim majority in the House of Representatives, stakes are high for redrawing electoral maps. According to an analysis by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School, Republicans will have sole control of drawing congressional district maps in 18 states. Those include battleground states like Texas, Florida, Georgia and North Carolina. The maps being drawn will strongly influence the battle to control Congress for the next decade.

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Rowan McGarry-Williams and Noah Kim are recent graduates of Pomona College.

Deanna Han is a student at Pomona College.

Sara Sadhwani (@sarasadhwani) is an assistant professor of politics at Pomona College and a commissioner on the California Citizens Redistricting Commission.