|By Meara Geraty
Digital Content Coordinator, RepresentUs
Earlier this week, the United States Census Bureau released the first results of the 2020 decennial census. The prevailing narrative is that Republicans gained more power at the expense of the Democrats, but this shallow take ignores the real threat — and both parties will use it for personal gain.
How the power of your vote depends on your district map
Last year, in the midst of a global pandemic and the hardships it wrought, the American government conducted the census — a detailed population count of the entire country that’s calculated every ten years.
This data tells the federal government how to divide up billions of dollars in aid and assistance, how all 435 Congressional districts should be allocated across the 50 states for the next ten years, and how many electoral college votes each state will receive for the 2024 and 2028 Presidential elections. The power of your vote for the rest of the decade depends on this.
So who won and who lost? California, Illinois, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia each lost one congressional seat, while Colorado, Florida, Montana, North Carolina and Oregon each gained one. Texas picked up two seats.
As every media outlet under the sun has pointed out, on the surface, it appears that Republican-controlled states netted more seats, potentially shifting the balance of power in the House towards Republicans (and making partisan Democrats sweat). But the real danger with the new census information isn’t about what the data says; it’s about how late states are receiving it — and how both parties will use this to rig states in their favor.
The pandemic is wreaking havoc on an already fraught (and partisan) process
In a normal year, getting an accurate count of every single person living in the United States is a major undertaking — but the pandemic made it more challenging than ever.
Data collection efforts came to a halt in April, when lockdowns and public safety issues made in-person census outreach impossible. While a majority of Americans filled out the survey online, these in-person efforts are crucial to ensuring historically underrepresented communities are counted.
This delay in counting has had a domino effect on the congressional redistricting that depends on this data. Monday’s release came months late, and even this information isn’t enough to properly redraw congressional districts. More granular and demographic data won’t be released until late summer and early fall, and without this, many states can’t move forward with their maps.
The issue? States often have to abide by their constitutional deadlines when it comes to redistricting. Some, like Ohio, have to submit district maps before they’ll even have full census data this year. Not only is this wreaking havoc on an already fraught and partisan process, some states are even resorting to using data sources other than the census and risking lawsuits.
Surprise, surprise: Politicians will use the census delay to try to rig the system. If we act fast, we can stop them.
On one hand, many states are simply caught between a rock and a hard place; they’re stuck waiting on the census yet held to deadlines too tight to carry out the process as usual.
But where there’s a bureaucratic crisis, there’s a perfect opportunity for corruption.
Long ago, politicians discovered that, by strategically drawing district lines, they can artificially dilute the power of voters who won’t support them, and increase the power of those voters that do. Politicians use this opportunity to choose their voters, instead of the other way around.
Right now, 35 states are at an extreme or high risk of gerrymandering because they lack common sense processes that would stop partisan actors from silencing voters, like having maps be drawn by independent commissions, holding public hearings, and soliciting input from the public.
When maps are drawn in secret, it gives partisan actors even more power to gerrymander — and a shortened timeline is the perfect excuse to cancel public hearings and shut voters out of a process. Remember: this process will literally shape our elections for the next decade.
2021 was always going to be a pivotal year for voting maps. In 2011, then-cutting edge computing power led to some of the most rigged maps in history, and a decade later, this threat has only increased. Plus, the increased polarization in our country means it's easier than ever to identify likely Republican or Democratic voters — and manipulate district lines accordingly.
With new technology, clearer polarization, and an already contentious and delayed census, it feels like everything is working in the favor of politicians, not voters. Here’s why there’s cause for hope.
Voters in recent years have banned gerrymandering in five states, proving that a grassroots movement can successfully defend fair elections. If we act fast, we can fight back against gerrymandering before the new maps are finalized by building pressure on state politicians. But we’ll only win if enough of us get involved.