Editor’s Note: Lincoln Mitchell (@LincolnMitchell) teaches in the political science department at Columbia University. His most recent book is “The Giants and Their City: Major League Baseball in San Francisco, 1976-1992.” (Kent State University Press, 2021). The opinions expressed here are his own. Read more opinion at CNN.
The most important development thus far in the race for control of the House of Representatives in 2022 arguably occurred with Monday’s release of data from last year’s census.
The census provides the basis for redrawing Congressional and other legislative district lines every 10 years. Although state legislatures, or in some case special districting commissions, are responsible for dividing states with Congressional district lines, the national census determines how many representatives each state gets. Every decade a few states gain seats, some lose them and many keep the same number they had during the previous decade. Today we learned which states fall into which category in this decennial go-round.
At first glance, things look good for the Republicans and not so much for the Democrats. Six states will gain seats in the House of Representatives. Colorado, Florida, Montana, North Carolina and Oregon will pick up one seat each, while Texas will pick up two. Those seven new seats will be balanced by California, Illinois, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia, which will each lose one House seat.
These changes will affect both the House of Representatives and the number of votes each state has in the Electoral College.
States are allocated one electoral vote for each senator and one for each member of the House. Therefore every state that gains a seat gains an electoral vote. In 2020, Joe Biden won 306 electoral votes to Donald Trump’s 232. Had the electoral votes been allocated based on the new census, Biden would have still won, but by a margin of 303-235. A change of three electoral votes may not seem significant, but in a very close race this could be hugely important.
The impact of the census on the 2022 midterm elections is more complex because it is not only a question of what states lose or gain seats, but of who draws the district lines for those seats. For example, while New York has lost a seat, the fact that the Democratic state legislature draws the districts makes it likely that it will be a Republican member of Congress who will lose their seat. (The redrawing procedure could be transferred to an independent redistricting commission if New York voters ratify a proposed amendment to the state constitution, but the legislature will still have final say over any new district maps.)
Amazingly, New York is losing a Congressional district because of a shortfall of 89 residents. In other words, had 89 more people participated in the census, New York would not have lost a Congressional seat. Instead, the seat went to Minnesota. Given what we know about who is undercounted – primarily people of color – and in light of the particularly bad Covid conditions in New York when the census was taken, this is particularly alarming. It is also a strong reminder of why participating in the census is so important.
The districting story is a little more complex in California where an independent commission draws the lines, but because the state is heavily Democratic, it is possible that the Republicans will lose a seat there as well. Democrats also have a good chance of controlling the process in Colorado and Oregon.
That is where the good news ends for the Democrats. Although Michigan and Montana also have non-partisan redistricting commissions, most of the remaining states that are gaining or losing representatives have Republican state legislatures or partisan commissions. Texas, Montana and West Virginia, as well as more politically competitive states like Ohio, North Carolina and Pennsylvania can be expected to draw new lines that favor the Republican Party.
That means that if a new seat needs to be created, it can be expected to be one a Republican can win relatively easily. If a seat has to be taken away, as in Ohio, it can be expected to be where the current incumbent is a Democrat. Given that the Republican Party only needs to flip nine seats to win control of the House, every one of these new seats, and each new set of district lines, will be of great importance to both parties.
However, the damage to the Democrats from the results of the census data is not the primary obstacle confronting the party or democracy more generally. The real problem is the gerrymandering that begins with the drawing of state legislative districts. Republican legislatures in states like Texas, which gained two seats, but also states like Wisconsin, which neither gained nor lost any, typically draw districts to keep Republican majorities in the state legislatures. These legislators then draw Congressional district lines that are helpful to the GOP.
This is a reminder both of the damagingly cyclical nature of gerrymandering and also the cost the Democrats continue to pay for not being sufficiently competitive at the state level back in the Obama years. Gerrymandering is a problem for democracy in general because it reduces competition between the parties and leaves fewer voters with meaningful electoral choices. It has only become a partisan issue because the Republicans have entrenched control of more state legislatures than the Democrats.
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The redistribution of a handful of Congressional seats following the census is a lucky break for the Republicans, and a bad one for the Democrats, but there will be bigger factors at play in November 2022. If President Joe Biden and the Democrats are able to continue the success that has been achieved on vaccines; if schools are fully open by this fall and the economy is strong, voter approval makes it less likely that gerrymandering will be enough for the GOP to win back control of the House of Representatives.
Similarly, failure by Biden and the Democrats to achieve these goals could be the primary cause of Republicans winning back the House. That’s basic politics. But gerrymandering and additional seats in GOP states like Texas and Florida will make it that much easier for them.
NOTE: This column has been updated to include a reference to New York’s independent redistricting commission.