|By Jack Noland
Research Manager, RepresentUs
What is reapportionment?
After a months-long delay, the U.S. Census Bureau released reapportionment data earlier this year, determining how the 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives will be divided among the states. The new congressional allocations reflect changes in population over the 10-year period since the last federal census was taken, in 2010.
Reapportionment is a crucial part of the nationwide redistricting process, whereby states redraw their election district maps at the state and federal levels. To identify the places most susceptible to maps rigged for partisan gain, RepresentUs released a comprehensive, first-in-class Gerrymandering Threat Index in April 2021, analyzing the redistricting laws on the books in all 50 states.
Musical chairs, rigged
In discussing the risk of gerrymandering, it’s important to remember that redistricting doesn’t start from scratch.
In every state, there are old maps in place, with districts represented by incumbent politicians who have an interest in staying in power. Because the number of congressional districts is fixed—there are 435 members of the U.S. House—every seat a state earns by growing faster than the rest of the country has to come from somewhere else. This rebalancing, where some states gain districts, and others lose them, creates a unique risk of gerrymandering.
It’s easy to understand why. Think of musical chairs. If there are 10 congressional districts in a state, there are 10 representatives. One fewer district means one fewer elected official, and someone left out of a job. The pull to find a seat—and to remain in power—will be strong.
On the flip side, adding a new seat provides massive opportunities to the party in power. If the maps are drawn right, the dominant faction can further entrench its advantage with another winnable bastion.
To better understand the risk of rigged maps, RepresentUs has applied 2020 reapportionment data to its gerrymandering threat index, and found the states affected skew dangerous. Most of these reallocated districts are at serious risk of being gerrymandered.
Results: A serious threat of gerrymandering in most states gaining or losing seats
More than half of the states gaining or losing a district are at extreme or high threat of congressional gerrymandering. Of the 13 districts changing hands, eight are in states where the risk of rigged maps is substantial.
Threat of gerrymandering in the states gaining seats:
- Extreme – Texas (gaining two seats), North Carolina
- High – Florida, Oregon
- Lower – Montana
- Minimal – Colorado
Threat of gerrymandering in the states losing seats:
- Extreme – Illinois, West Virginia
- High – Pennsylvania
- Lower – Ohio, New York
- Minimal – California, Michigan
Four of the six “spotlight” states identified in the gerrymandering threat index will gain or lose a district—Texas, North Carolina, Florida, and Pennsylvania. Given their national prominence and large populations, these battleground states are likely to see especially contentious redistricting battles.
Most of the states losing seats are at a lower or minimal threat of gerrymandering (New York, Ohio, Michigan, California).
This loss of a seat could create additional risks, however, as officials may attempt to protect their advantage to the greatest extent possible. This is why Michigan and California’s independent commission systems are so important: these bodies better insulate their states from rigged maps than any process that allows sitting politicians to play a central role in line-drawing.
Although states have had apportionment data for months now, they typically rely on the Census’ detailed redistricting data to actually draw their maps. As of August 12th, this new set of data became public. Some states will soon be in the process of finalizing their maps, potentially as early as mid-September. Time is running out to prevent gerrymandering.
There is a solution to this problem, however. The For the People Act, currently under consideration in Congress as S. 1/H.R. 1, would all but eliminate the threat of rigged congressional maps, nationwide. The Senate will return from recess on September 13th to vote on the bill.
Twenty-five percent of districts are already at a low risk of gerrymandering. Immediate federal reform would reduce the rest of the country, or 325 districts — 75 percent of the U.S. House — to a low-risk rating. That includes all of the states identified above at an extreme or high risk of gerrymandering. We don’t need to sit back and watch this game of musical chairs get rigged.
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