States with independent redistricting? After a COVID-19-related delay in getting out the census data, states across the country are now moving to draw new lines for congressional districts and for state legislative districts. The stakes could not be higher, since the new maps will dictate politics for years to come.
Not surprisingly, many people want to know which party is gaining an advantage as a result of this redistricting. Let’s look at the possible changes in the U.S. House of Representatives.
At the heart of any attempted forecast is a paradox. Republican states picked up the most congressional seats and Republican legislatures control the process in the most states, but Republican counties lost population while Democratic counties gained.
The following table shows the states that will pick up seats and the states that will lose seats, organized by their partisan inclinations.
When the data was finally released, many drew conclusions that signaled a newfound GOP advantage. This sentiment was captured by the following headlines, for example:
“The census is a lucky break for Republicans,” CNN (4/27/21)
“New census numbers shift political power south to Republican strongholds,” The Washington Post (4/26/21)
“New Census data could lead to a Republican landslide in midterm elections,” Fortune (5/7/21)
In addition, data from the Cook Political Report shows that Republican legislatures will have the final say over the redistricting process in 20 states covering 187 congressional districts, while Democrats control the process in just eight states with 75 districts. The remaining states draw maps using independent commissions, are composed of a split government, or are at-large seats (which aren’t subject to a redistricting process). The GOP advantage here is another reason why forecasts lean toward the Republicans.
The paradox comes in however, when one looks at other census numbers. The new numbers show another pattern, one that tilts in the opposite direction. Overall, rural counties steadily lost population over the past 10 years, and rural counties tend to be strongly Republican. “The average county with a FiveThirtyEight urbanization index below 8 lost 3.1% of its population between 2010 and 2020,” a recent FiveThirtyEight article reads. “This encompasses the 1,430 most rural counties in America–1,302 of which voted for former President Trump in 2020 and only 127 voted for President Biden.” And while rural counties lost population, urban and suburban counties gained population, according to that piece. The pattern of rural losses and suburban/urban gains surprised many who assumed that the exodus to the cities and suburbs would have slowed in the past decade.
The other notable takeaway from the 2020 census is that the white population is shrinking. My Brookings colleague, William Frey, points out that there has been an absolute decline in the white population as minority populations increase everywhere. Frey notes, “During the 2010-20 decade, 95% of all U.S. counties registered declines in their white population shares.” These facts indicate that redistricting could benefit Democrats, as non-white voters tend to vote at significantly higher rates for Democrats.
These findings are meaningful because the Constitution requires that congressional districts must be uniform in size. (Following the 2010 redistricting, each congressional district had about 710,767 people.) That means that, regardless of which party controls redistricting, counties that have lost population will need to go looking for people.
The suburban and urban districts that have too many people may need to put some of their people in the rural districts that have lost population. In other words, some red districts are likely to get an influx of blue voters–in some cases. It could be enough to make those districts less red, purple, or even blue.
Hence, the paradox: Republicans will have to figure out how to create new Republican districts and retain old ones with voters from Democratic or swing districts, and Democrats will have to figure out how to take advantage of the growth in traditionally Democratic areas.
In state capital after state capital, district by district, the battle is on. Expect to see a replication of some of the hardcore tactics that Republicans perfected during the post-2010 redistricting. Following the 2008 presidential election, the Republican Party. Under the leadership of former RNC chairman Ed Gillespie, invested $30 million-dollars to try and win seats in 16 legislatures. By winning an enormous number of state legislative seats and control of 20 additional state legislatures. The Republicans set themselves up to control the map drawing process in approximately 200 congressional districts.
The effort, which caught the Democrats and the Obama team flat-footed. Consisted of packing as many Democratic voters as possible into the same district. The result is the stuff of political legend. REDMAP (Redistricting Majority Project), as the effort was known. It resulted in a solid Republican House majority in 2010, even while Democrats got more votes nationally. For instance, in the state of Pennsylvania, Democratic congressional candidates won 2,793,538 votes. Which gave them only five congressional seats; Republicans netted fewer votes, 2,710,070, but accrued 13 seats!
States with Independent Redistricting