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Redistricting complicates Democratic efforts to hold onto House

▶ Watch Video: Which states gain and lose congressional seats in first 2020 census results

Washington — Seven states are poised to lose a congressional seat based on shifting population figures, according to apportionment counts released by the Census Bureau on Monday, which could potentially tilt the balance of power in the House of Representatives in the 2022 midterm elections.

Congressional seats are apportioned based on a state’s population, and each state’s share of votes is determined by the number of representatives in their congressional delegation, meaning that the results of the 2020 Census will have far-reaching political implications. California, Illinois, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia experienced static growth or population losses in recent years, resulting in their loss of congressional seats.

Democrats currently hold an extremely narrow majority, and will have a tough fight to hold onto control in 2022. Historically, the president’s party loses seats during the midterm election in his first term — Republicans took control of the House from Democrats in 2010, and Democrats regained their majority in 2018.

The challenge to keep their majority will be complicated by the changes in apportionment. Twenty-five states utilize an independent, bipartisan commission to draw their congressional districts, or have split chambers of legislatures in charge. But in the other 25 states, there is single-party control of legislatures which will determine how the maps will be drawn — 18 controlled by Republicans, and seven by Democrats.

California and Michigan have their districts determined by an independent commission. New York has an advisory commission that will provide a recommended map for the legislature — but their advisory map is nonbinding, and the Democratic-controlled legislature may not choose to follow its advice.

Pennsylvania has a divided government, with the legislature controlled by Republicans and a Democratic governor. Governor Tom Wolf can veto a map if it’s gerrymandered, or drawn by the legislature to be politically advantageous to Republicans.

Democratic lawyer Marc Elias and the National Redistricting Action Fund filed three lawsuits on Monday in states with divided governments: Louisiana, Minnesota and Pennsylvania. They argue that courts should be used as a backup to draw lines, in case legislatures can’t agree on a map in time.

“While these are the first lawsuits of this redistricting cycle, let me make it plain: these are not going to be the last. We are prepared and ready to use every legal tool available to make sure that new maps do not unfairly treat voters,” Elias told reporters on Tuesday. 

Illinois, Ohio and West Virginia have single-party control, meaning that their maps are more likely to be gerrymandered along partisan lines.

Redistricting will force incumbents to run in more politically competitive districts. In Pennsylvania and Texas, several incumbent representatives in swing districts already face challenging reelection fights. In New York, some House Democrats that lost their 2020 reelection, such as Max Rose and Anthony Brindisi, have not ruled out a 2022 run in potentially more Democratic-friendly seats.

Although Pennsylvania’s Wolf has veto power over the congressional map, the Republican legislature will likely try to find a way to apportion districts so that Democrats lose at least one seat. This could occur by incorporating more red counties into blue-leaning districts, making it more difficult for a Democrat to hold onto their seat with an influx of Republican voters.

Meanwhile, in Illinois, Republican representatives could see their districts could become bluer, and a loss of a seat could mean one less Republican in Congress.

Because of the confusion caused by redistricting, other members of Congress may choose to run for statewide office rather than try their luck in a newly reapportioned district. Ohio Congressman Tim Ryan, a Democrat, launched his Senate campaign Monday, the same day the Census Bureau said his state would lose a congressional seat. Republican Congressman Lee Zeldin has already launched a campaign for governor in New York.

Meanwhile, several other states are gaining congressional seats, but this could spell even more trouble for Democrats. Population growth in Texas, North Carolina, Florida, Oregon, Montana and Colorado will result in added congressional seats to these delegations. Texas, North Carolina and Florida each have Republican-controlled legislatures and GOP governors who will be able to approve a map that is favorable for them. Oregon is controlled by Democrats, and Montana’s districts are drawn by a commission.

“We’re going to win redistricting. What does that mean? It means we’re going to ensure that the rules and procedures are followed to maximize our opportunities,” National Republican Congressional Committee Chair Tom Emmer said in February.

States under single-party political control that have seen demographic change, such as Texas, Florida, Georgia and North Carolina, are at the “highest-risk” for gerrymandering, according to a report by the Brennan Center.

“As we redistrict Texas for democratic representation, we must not allow the leftist ideal of representation by population to rule the day,” Texas GOP Chair Allen West said in a statement Tuesday. “Representation in Texas must be based upon citizenship, and strategically we can ascertain why the left wants to flood Texas with thousands of” undocumented immigrants.

Some Republicans were anticipating more districts to be added in Texas and Florida, as well as Arizona, which kept their same number of seats. 

Seven seats will shift among thirteen states, the smallest shift since 1941.

Districts that encompass urban areas tend to be safely Democratic, and there are swing districts in counties surrounding cities. For example, the Republican legislature in Georgia could split up the swing districts around Atlanta, consolidating the bluer parts into one safely Democratic seat and allowing for another seat to be skewed towards Republicans.

North Carolina had to redraw its congressional and state legislative districts in 2019, after a panel of three judges ruled it was “beyond a reasonable doubt” that past districts were “extreme partisan gerrymanders” that benefitted Republicans. 

But two recent Supreme Court cases in the past decade have made gerrymandering easier.

In 2013, the justices ruled in Shelby County v. Holder that a section of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 regarding federal approval on redistricting plans no longer applies. And a 5-4 decision in 2019 on a case involving claims of partisan map drawing in North Carolina and Maryland kicked the question of the legality of partisan redistricting to state legislatures.

The House races will also be affected by the change in timeline for releasing population data. Normally, the apportionment data would have been presented by the end of 2020, but the deadline was delayed due to the pause in data collection during the coronavirus pandemic. The bureau instead set an April 30, 2021, deadline for apportionment data to be delivered to states, and more specific data for redistricting has to be sent to states by the end of September.

The delay in data has meant that states with constitutional or statutory deadlines have considered moving candidate filing and primary dates. Twelve states require redistricting to be completed this year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Thirteen other states have constitutions which state that redistricting must be completed by the year after the census is conducted — effectively the end of 2021.

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