Redistricting season officially kicked off Thursday with the release of detailed population data from the U.S. Census Bureau that will be used to redraw voting districts nationwide — potentially helping determine control of the U.S. House in the 2022 elections and providing an electoral edge for the next decade.
The new data shows that much of the fastest growth occurred in the nation's largest cities and their suburbs, while populations in many rural areas declined in the 2020 census. That data will serve as the building block to redraw 429 U.S. House districts in 44 states and 7,383 state legislative districts across the U.S. The official goal is to ensure each district has roughly the same number of people.
But many Republicans and Democrats will be operating with another goal — to ensure the new lines divide and combine voters in ways that make it more likely for their party's candidates to win future elections, a process called gerrymandering. The parties' successes in that effort could determine whether taxes and spending grow, climate-change polices are approved or access to abortion is expanded or curtailed.
Republicans need to gain just five seats to take control of the U.S. House in the 2022 elections — a margin that could potentially be covered through artful redistricting.
“Redistricting really is the ballgame this cycle in the House," said David Wasserman, an analyst for congressional races at The Cook Political Report. "Even tiny changes to district lines could have huge implications that tip the balance of power in the House.”
As they did after the 2010 census, Republicans will hold greater sway in the redistricting process.
The GOP will control redistricting in 20 states accounting for 187 U.S. House seats, including the growing states of Texas, Florida, Georgia and North Carolina, where the governor is a Democrat, but the legislature has complete control of drawing new electoral lines. By contrast, Democrats will control redistricting in just eight states accounting for 75 seats, including New York and Illinois, where the loss of a seat in each gives them a chance to squeeze out Republican incumbents.
In 16 other states accounting for 167 U.S. House seats, districts will be drawn either by independent commissions or by politically split politicians with legislative chambers led by one party and governors of another. Six states have just one U.S. House seat, so there are no district lines to be drawn.
States with significant population shifts provide some of the best opportunities for parties to gain an advantage through redistricting. They can add a favorable district, eliminate one held by their opponent or redraw a competitive district to contain a more comfortable majority of supporters.
Texas will be a major focal point in redistricting.
The Census Bureau said five of the 14 cities that grew by at least 100,000 people are located in Texas — Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston and San Antonio. Four of the nation's 10 fastest growing cities also were Texas suburbs — Frisco and McKinney near Dallas; Conroe near Houston, and New Braunfels near San Antonio. All are prime battle grounds for redistricting. By contrast, many Texas counties outside of its metropolitan areas saw populations decline, the Census Bureau said.
Republicans, who currently hold 23 of the 36 U.S. House seats in Texas, will have full control over the redistricting process, allowing them to decide where to draw the two new seats the state is gaining. But that could be complicated because Democrats generally have fared better in Texas suburbs in recent elections.
Suburban growth has been driven by the migration of young, Latino, Black and college-educated residents — all core Democratic constituencies, said Kelly Ward Burton, president of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee.
But Republicans in charge of redistricting could draw maps that split up those Democratic-leaning voters, adding some to predominantly Republican districts to give the GOP a shot at winning even more seats in Texas.
“As the process of redistricting begins, the Legislature should be guided by the principle of fair representation for every Texan,” said state Rep. Rafael Anchia, a Democratic member of the House redistricting committee and chair of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus. He called upon colleagues "to embrace diversity as a strength and commit to drawing electoral maps that are representative of our great state.”
Texas had been among several states that needed advance approval from the U.S. Justice Department for its redistricting plans because of a history of racial discrimination. But the U.S. Supreme Court overturned that requirement in 2013 and, in a separate ruling several years later, said it would not get involved in disputes over alleged political gerrymandering, leaving that to state courts to decide. Lawsuits are expected to challenge redistricting maps in many states.
Outside of Texas, some of the largest growth occurred in Arizona's chief city of Phoenix, including a nearly 80% population increase in its suburb of Buckeye. But Arizona's voting districts are drawn by an independent commission, making it more difficult for Republican or Democratic officials to gain an edge in redistricting.
Census data also showed large growth in Seattle and Los Angeles and some of their suburbs. Other cities gaining at least 100,000 people included Charlotte, North Carolina; Columbus, Ohio; Denver; Jacksonville, Florida; New York; and Oklahoma City. The suburbs of Salt Lake City and Boise, Idaho, also ranked high in growth rates.
The fastest-growing U.S. metropolitan area was The Villages a GOP-leaning retirement community in central Florida, which grew 39% from about 93,000 people to about 130,000.
Florida is gaining a U.S. House seat, and Republicans who are in charge of redistricting could use it as an opportunity to add GOP voters to Democratic-held districts in central Florida have more GOP voters.
After the 2010 census, Republicans who controlled redistricting in far more states than Democrats drew maps that gave them a greater political advantage in more states than either party had in the past 50 years, according to a new Associated Press analysis.
But Republicans won't hold as much power as they did last time in some key states. Republican-led legislatures will be paired with Democratic governors in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, which both had full GOP control after the 2010 census. In Michigan, a voter-approved citizens commission will handle redistricting instead of lawmakers and the governor. And in Ohio, voter-approved redistricting reforms will require majority Republicans to gain the support of minority Democrats for the new districts to last a full decade.
Ultimately, no matter how lines are drawn, elections are won based on the quality of candidates and their stance on issues, said Adam Kincaid, executive director of the National Republican Redistricting Trust, the GOP’s redistricting hub.
The redistricting process will be conducted on a compressed timeline. States are getting the data more than four months later than originally scheduled because of difficulties in conducting the 2020 census during the coronavirus pandemic.
That means map-drawers will have to work quickly to meet constitutional deadlines in some states or seek judicial approval to take longer. Ohio's constitution, for example, sets a Sept. 15 deadline for a board to approve new state legislative maps.
“We’re in a bit of a fix over how quickly we can get this done,” said Ohio Senate President Matt Huffman, a Republican who is a member of the redistricting board.
In many states, the new districts are likely to face lawsuits as political parties continue jockeying for the best possible maps. After the 2010 census, redistricting lawsuits lasted for much of the following decade and led to significant changes in some states. Democrats gained a total of 11 seats in the U.S. House after courts struck down Republican-drawn districts in four states and ordered new ones between the 2016 and 2020 elections.
“If it hadn’t been for Democratic lawsuits that overturned Republican-drawn maps in Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Florida and Virginia, Democrats would not be sitting in the majority in the House right now,” Wasserman said.
Associated Press writer Acacia Coronado contributed to this report from Austin, Texas.