December 1, 2009 | CQ Politics | Original Article

Before Redistricting, That Other ‘R’ Word

Dec. 1, 2009 - 12:07a.m.

By Greg Giroux, CQ-Roll Call


The once-a-decade process for redrawing the map of the House of Representatives has two distinct parts with similar-sounding, multisyllabic names. Redistricting, the drawing of the lines within each state, is the second part. Reapportionment, deciding how many House seats each state will have, comes first.

There's likely to be much more suspense about Part 2 than about Part 1. Although the governors, state legislators and probably some judges will be fighting over congressional district boundaries for much of 2011 and 2012, how many seats get assigned to each state will be decided formally, relatively straightforwardly, by the end of next year, based on the results of the 2010 census.

Story Photo

From the Rust Belt To the Sun Belt: Click Here to View Chart


But the outcome, in broad terms, is not in doubt. As in every reapportionment since World War II, more seats will be awarded to the Southern and Western states, and taken away almost exclusively from the states of the Midwest and Northeast.

The power shift will not be as great as it was over the latter half of the 20th century, when the population surges in the Sun Belt eclipsed the modest growth in the Rust Belt because of a variety of factors: technological advances - air conditioning, first and foremost - that boosted the appeal of life in the warm-weather states; changes in the American economy, especially the decline in manufacturing in the nation's northern half; the rapid increase in the Hispanic population; and the growth of the retirement and tourism industries that favored the temperate climes and expanses of the South and West.

Based on the most recent detailed population projections from the Census Bureau, the nonpartisan Election Data Services Inc. (EDS) - a consulting firm in Manassas, Va., specializing in political demographics - projects that a dozen seats will be reassigned next year, with eight states gaining some strength in the House and 11 states losing some.

Twelve seats were shifted after the 2000 census; the reapportionment upheaval was significantly greater after the 1990 census (19 seats moved) and the 1980 census (17 seats). The seat-shift projection may change at the end of the year, when the Census Bureau will release new populations of the 50 states based on estimates made this summer.

Not only will the reapportionment signal the start of redistricting, it will also inform the early strategizing about the 2012 presidential election, because each state's strength in the Electoral College is equal to the size of its total congressional delegation: House members plus senators.

Priority Values

For an event of rather momentous political consequences, reapportionment hardly captures the imagination of the average American. It begins with a national population head count that few people give more than a few minutes' notice every 10 years. And it concludes with the application of a formula for apportioning seats that only someone with a doctorate in statistics can love, or truly comprehend.

Using forms mailed to every household in March, and follow-up interviews with people who don't return those forms, the Census Bureau will seek to determine the precise populations of each state on April 1. The secretary of Commerce, who oversees the agency, has until Dec. 31 to announce those population counts. (In 2000, the job got done three days before the deadline.)

Story Photo

The Likely Seat Shifts: Click Here to View Chart


The totals provide the raw data for reapportionment based on the "method of equal proportions," which Congress has used since 1941 to divvy up House seats among the states. The formula is actually used to parcel out only the 385 seats that remain after each of the 50 states is assigned the one seat it is guaranteed under the Constitution.

The rest of the seats are handed out based on statistical "priority values" assigned to each additional seat that a state might get. In as close to plain English as the formula will allow, these priority values are calculated in a two-step process that requires dividing a state's population by the square root of the product of the number of seats it's already been assigned and that number plus one. The priority numbers are then rank ordered: "State A" will get an additional seat if its priority value for that seat is greater than any other state's. The seats are disbursed to states based on these rankings until all 435 have been awarded.

The reason at least a handful of seats get transferred each decade is that reapportionment is a zero-sum game: The size of the House was fixed at 435 seats in a law enacted 80 years ago. The fact that the number of House seats has stayed the same even as the population has soared means a vast increase in the number of constituents represented by most House members. The average district population in the coming decade will be about 710,000 people, 10 percent more than in this decade and 24 percent more than in the 1990s.

That each state, no matter how small, is entitled to one seat creates some significant variations from those averages, though. Republican Cynthia M. Lummis, Wyoming's sole House member, has the smallest constituency; her state's current population is estimated at 533,000. But another at-large member, Republican Denny Rehberg, has by far the biggest constituency; Montana's current head count is above 967,000.

Where the Population Is Growing

Politically, the continued political-gravitational pull of seats to the South and West will be the most consequential aspect of the next reapportionment.

In the 1950s, when seats were assigned for the first time after World War II, the states of the South, the Rocky Mountain region and the Pacific Coast had 38 percent of them; today, that figure is 53 percent. The changes in some individual states are at least as dramatic. While New York's strength has plummeted from 43 seats in 1950 to 29 now, and Pennsylvania from 30 to 19, California's delegation has surged from 30 to 53 members, Texas' from 22 to 32 and Florida's from just eight to 25.

The seat shifts next year will continue those trends. Under any scenario envisioned by EDS, Texas will be the biggest winner, with four more House seats - a consequence of the state's burgeoning Hispanic population; the government estimates that 63 percent of the 3.4 million new residents in the state this decade are Latino. Hispanic population growth is the reason the only other state in line for more than one new House seat is Arizona; if its delegation grows to 10, from the current eight, that will be a doubling just since the 1980s.

The biggest loser stands to be Ohio, which would slip to 16 seats from 18. Ten other states are projected to lose one seat each. The only one outside the Northeast or Midwest is Louisiana, which almost certainly will see its House allotment reduced to six. With its sluggish economy heavily dependent on oil and gas production, the state was in danger of losing a seat even before Hurricane Katrina caused significant population dislocations four years ago.

Some Sun Belt states that are still growing are not doing so as quickly as in recent decades. California is not on course to gain a seat - the first time since it became a state 160 years ago that it would not be rewarded in reapportionment. In fact, there's a chance the state could lose a seat in favor of a second new seat for Florida or one new seat for North Carolina.

"The shine is definitely off of California," said Douglas Johnson, a fellow at the Rose Institute of State and Local Government at Claremont McKenna College east of Los Angeles. "It's certainly not the beacon attracting internal migration anywhere near what it used to be, and in fact we're seeing occasional bursts of out-migration."

Although there's no direct correlation between a state's strength in numbers in the House and its congressional clout, it is undeniably true that the more people there are in a given delegation, the higher the likelihood the state will have a seat at the table in a wider variety of legislative deliberations.

The Foreclosure Factor

The reapportionment projection isn't etched in granite. After all, it's based on estimates of population shifts that could change before the actual head count takes place. The formula is sensitive to small shifts in population, so it's not inconceivable that a state now projected to just miss out on an additional seat could wind up getting it after all, or that a state presumed to barely qualify for one of the last of the 435 seats could be deprived of it.

The current projections by and large don't take into account any population dislocations that may have been caused by the weakened economy, in particular the rash of housing foreclosures.

"The one big variable that none of us demographers know how to accommodate is the foreclosure crisis," Johnson said.

Demographers at the University of Florida projected in August that more than 58,000 people left that state in the 12 months that ended in April - the first time since 1946 that Florida has lost population. In California, demographers wonder how foreclosures in the state's Central Valley and Inland Empire regions will affect mobility patterns.

"Are they going back to the coastal areas of California, or are they heading out to Nevada and Arizona?" Johnson said. "There's no good tracking of the foreclosed population, so we just don't know what's going on with all of those folks."

The Census Bureau determined that 11.9 percent of the population changed residences last year - the lowest annual moving rate since the government began tracking the statistic in 1948. "The fact that we've got many fewer people moving, that is going to have an impact on the reapportionment, and maybe we won't see as much of a change this decade as what we've seen in previous decades," said Kimball W. Brace, president of EDS.

And the projections also don't factor in the tens of thousands of military personnel who are serving outside the United States but are included in the reapportionment count. These Americans are allocated to their home states using information provided to census takers by the federal agencies that employ them.

North Carolina's large population of military personnel allowed it to gain a seat in the 2000 reapportionment, in the process leapfrogging Utah, whose Mormon missionaries serving overseas were not included. The states' positions essentially are reversed for 2010: Utah is a cinch to receive its fourth seat, while North Carolina is on the cusp of receiving a 14th seat.

Counting Non-Citizens

That the census counts everyone in the United States, without regard to citizenship or <immigration> status, has rankled some conservative lawmakers who say states with large numbers of illegal immigrants gain an unfair advantage in reapportionment.

David Vitter, a Louisiana Republican, earlier this month proposed an amendment to the Senate's fiscal 2010 Commerce-Justice-Science spending bill that would have barred federal funding for the Census Bureau unless it asked about citizenship and <immigration status on the form it will send to all households in the spring. But Vitter's amendment, which the Senate ultimately shunted aside, came far too late. More than 300 million questionnaires had already been printed, and the Census Bureau informed Congress of the exact wording on them nearly two years ago.

Vitter's amendment didn't say anything about how the information would have been used, though his presumed goal - excluding non-citizens from the reapportionment - would require a constitutional amendment to supersede the 14th Amendment's declaration that reapportionment shall be conducted by "counting the whole number of persons in each state."

In each of the past three Congresses, Republican Rep. Candice S. Miller of Michigan has introduced a constitutional amendment that would mandate that the reapportionment be conducted by "counting the number of persons in each State who are citizens of the United States." But the proposal hasn't gone anywhere in either Republican-controlled or Democratic-controlled Congresses.

Greg Giroux is a politics reporter for the CQ-Roll Call Group.