Beginning in 2010, the number 722,000 will rule state-by-state congressional politics. When the Census Bureau finishes counting Americans, it’s expected to find that the U.S. population will have increased from about 281 million in 2000 to 315 million. Many states will face reapportionment based on about 722,000 residents per district — gaining or losing seats in the House of Representatives according to the states’ populations as determined by the 2010 census.
State populations in the South and Southwest will have grown appreciably more than in the Midwest and Northeast, reflecting immigration and migration trends that took root after World War II. Consequently, the shift of political power from the latter to the former will continue (see map). For example, the population of California, the most populous state in the union and larger than all but 34 nations, will grow nearly 8 percent from 2000 to 2010 — but California will lose a seat in the House.
Following redistricting is important because reapportionment and redistricting may shift power in the House of Representatives. How great a shift depends on an intricate political calculus involving party control of legislatures and governorships.
This decennial dance may determine which party is best positioned to retain or regain control of the House following 2012 elections. That’s why Howard Dean, chair of the Democratic National Committee, pushed his “50-State Strategy” to rule as many state legislatures as possible to take control of mapping new congressional district boundaries. The Democrats now control both chambers in 27 states. But did it really work? In the 21 states expected to gain or lose House seats, 16 seats are at issue with the GOP holding the upper hand for more than half.
In this post, S&R examines states likely to lose or gain House seats through reapportionment and the role and influence of state legislatures and governors in redistricting.
Redistricting is complex, controversial
Given the recent gerrymandering debacles in one state alone — Texas — the early months of the next decade are likely to show American politics at its worst. After all, the deposed speaker of the House, Tom DeLay, demonstrated how to redraw congressional district lines to unduly influence the ability of Texas Republicans to gain seats in the House. Now, here’s the bad news — after reapportionment following the 2010 census, Texas is expected to gain four seats in the House. And you betcha that they’ll be carved out to add four Republican seats in the House that could erode the current Democratic majority. Think Mr. DeLay’s still out of politics? He may be, but the political processes he used are assuredly not.
Redistricting is perhaps the most complicated and mysterious of American political processes because 1) it may differ from state to state due to law and what party controls what arms of government, 2) it is often involves horse-trading out of the public eye, and 3) it has habitually been inadequately covered by the press because of the previous two reasons. As John Dean wrote in Broken Government: How Republican Rule Destroyed the Legislative, Executive, and Judicial Branches:
Political pundits and commentators dismiss “process issues” by claiming they are of no interest to Americans. They are wrong. … Today, in Washington, process is the name of the game, and those who do not understand this fact are operating in ignorance. Political observers who do not make an effort to understand process matters will remain uninformed.
To understand redistricting, a useful text is “A Citizen’s Guide to Redistricting” by Justin Levitt and Bethany Foster of the Brennan Center for Justice, available as a pdf.
Mr. Levitt and Ms. Foster point out that redistricting matters because it allows politicians to choose their voters, eliminate incumbents — or challengers — from opposing parties, pack districts with partisan supporters, dilute the influence of minority voters, and split communities along unnatural lines.
Therefore it’s important for political observers in any state to be aware of who redraws district lines. In each state, the usual recipe of influences includes the governor, the leaders of the state House and state Senate, and, sometimes, members of “advisory commissions” on redistricting. In most states, the legislature redraws districts with the governor enjoying veto power, which, in turn, can be overridden by the legislature. And, of course, when no one agrees, the courts step in.
Now, imagine differing combinations of party control in a state: One party holding the governorship and both chambers of the legislature; one party holding the governorship but neither chamber of the legislature; and one party holding the governorship but the legislature divided by party. This is where redistricting can get messy.
Reapportionment after 2010: Winners and losers
Here’s a look at the states expected to gain or lose House seats following the 2010 census. (Clark Benson of Polidata, a political research firm, provided the estimates of gain or loss. Redistricting schemes are primarily drawn from the Brennan Center guide.)
ARIZONA: currently 8 seats; gains 2. Voted for Sen. McCain, 54 percent to 45. Senate: even; House: GOP. DEM Gov. Janet Napolitano. Uses a commission (two DEM, two GOP, one Independent) with exclusive authority. Governor cannot veto. (If Gov. Napolitano gives up her seat to become head of the Department of Homeland Security, GOP Secretary of State Jan Brewer will automatically become governor.) Current seats: 5 DEM, 3 GOP.
CALIFORNIA: currently 53 seats; loses 1. Voted for president-elect Obama, 61-38. Senate: DEM; House: DEM. GOP Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Legislature draws districts; governor can veto. Current seats: 34 DEM, 18 GOP.
FLORIDA: currently 25 seats; gains 2. Voted for president-elect Obama, 51-49. Senate: GOP; House: GOP. GOP Gov. Charlie Crist. Legislature draws districts; governor can veto. Current seats: 15 GOP, 10 DEM.
GEORGIA: currently 13 seats; gains 1. Voted for Sen. McCain, 52-47. Senate: GOP; House: GOP. GOP Gov. Sonny Perdue. Legislature draws districts; governor can veto. Current seats: GOP 7, DEM 6.
ILLINOIS: currently 19 seats; loses 1. Voted for president-elect Obama, 62-37. House: DEM; Senate: DEM. DEM Gov. Rod Blagojevich. Legislature draws districts; governor can veto. Current seats: 12 DEM, 7 GOP.
IOWA: currently 5 seats; loses 1. Voted for president-elect Obama, 54-45. Senate: DEM; House: DEM. DEM Gov. Chet Culver. Nonpartisan legislative staff draw district maps sans political or election data that are submitted to the legislature for approval. If the legislature cannot agree, the state Supreme Court may approve the maps. Current seats: 3 DEM, 2 GOP.
LOUISIANA: currently 7 seats; loses 1. Voted for Sen. McCain, 51-49. Senate: DEM; House: DEM. GOP Gov. Bobby Jindal. Legislature draws districts; governor can veto. Current seats: 4 GOP, 1 DEM.
MASSACHUSETTS: currently 10 seats; loses 1. Voted for president-elect Obama, 62-36. Senate: DEM; House: DEM. DEM Gov. Deval Patrick. Legislature draws districts; governor can veto. Following the 2000 census, the Democratically controlled Legislature overrode the then-Republican governor’s veto of new district maps. Current seats: 10 DEM.
MICHIGAN: currently 15; loses 1. Voted for president-elect Obama, 57-41. Senate: GOP; House: DEM. DEM Gov. Jennifer Granholm. Legislature draws districts; governor can veto. (If Gov. Granholm is tapped for a post in the Obama administration, her seat would be filled by DEM Lt. Gov. John Cherry, but the new lieutenant governor would be chosen by the GOP-controlled state Senate.) Current seats: 8 DEM, 7 GOP.
MINNESOTA: currently 8; loses 1. Voted for president-elect Obama, 54-44. Senate: DEM; House: DEM. GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty. Legislature draws districts; governor can veto. Following the 2000 census, with no legislative agreement, state Supreme Court drew lines. Current seats: 5 DEM, 3 GOP.
MISSOURI: currently 9; loses 1. Voted for Sen. McCain, 50-49. Senate: GOP; House: GOP. GOP Gov. Matt Blunt. Legislature draws districts; governor can veto. Following the 2000 census, absent legislative agreement, a court drew district lines. Current seats: 5 GOP, 4 DEM.
NEVADA: currently 3 seats; gains 1. Voted for president-elect Obama, 55-43. Senate: DEM (change); House: DEM. GOP Gov. Jim Gibbons. Legislature draws districts; governor can veto. Current seats: 2 DEM, 1 GOP.
NEW JERSEY: currently 13 seats; loses 1. Voted for president-elect Obama, 57-42. Senate: DEM; House: DEM. DEM Gov. Jon Corzine. Uses political commission selected by majority and minority leaders and state major party chairs; governor cannot veto. (If Gov. Corzine, a former U.S. senator, takes a post in the Obama administration, DEM Senate President Dick Codey would succeed him.) Current seats: 8 DEM, 5 GOP.
NEW YORK: currently 29; loses 2. Voted for president-elect Obama, 62-39. Senate: DEM (change); House: DEM. DEM Gov. Paterson. Uses an advisory commission; governor can veto. Current seats: 26 DEM, 3 GOP.
NORTH CAROLINA: currently 13 seats; gains 1. Voted for president-elect Obama, 50-49. Senate: DEM; House: DEM. DEM Gov. Mike Easley. Legislature draws districts; governor cannot veto. Current seats: 8 DEM, 5 GOP.
OHIO: currently 18 seats; loses 2. Voted for president-elect Obama, 51-47. Senate: GOP; House: DEM (change). DEM Gov. Ted Strickland. Advisory commission draws districts; governor can veto. Redistricting, controlled by the GOP in 2001, may be more contentious with a divided legislature. (If Gov. Strickland, a prominent early supporter of president-elect Obama, leaves office for an Obama administration post, he would be succeeded by DEM Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher.) Current seats: 9 DEM, 8 GOP.
OREGON: currently 5 seats; gains 1. Voted for president-elect Obama, 57-41. Senate: DEM; House: DEM. DEM Gov. Ted Kulongoski. Legislature draws districts; governor can veto. Following the 2000 census, DEM Gov. John Kitzhaber vetoed a Republican-backed redistricting bill; a court drew the lines. Current seats: 4 DEM, 1 GOP.
PENNSYLVANIA: currently 19 seats; loses 1. Voted for president-elect Obama, 55-44. Senate: GOP; House: DEM. DEM Gov. Ed Rendell. Legislature draws districts; governor can veto. Current seats: 12 DEM, 7 GOP.
SOUTH CAROLINA: currently 6 seats; gains 1. Voted for Sen. McCain, 54-45. Senate: GOP; House: GOP. GOP Gov. Mark Sanford. Legislature draws districts; governor can veto. Following the 2000 census, DEM Gov. James Hovis Hodges vetoed a GOP-backed legislative plan; a court drew district lines. Current seats: 4 GOP, 2 DEM.
TEXAS: currently 32 seats; gains 4. Voted for Sen. McCain, 55-44. Senate: GOP; House: GOP. GOP Gov. Rick Perry. Legislature draws districts; governor can veto. Following the 2000 census, no agreement was reached by the GOP governor, GOP Senate, and DEM House; the redistricting battle was partly settled by the U.S. Supreme Court and cemented Rep. Tom DeLay’s iconic reputation through what writer Jeffrey Toobin called “a Promethean display of political power.” Current seats: 20 GOP, 12 DEM.
UTAH: currently 3 seats; gains 1. Voted for Sen. McCain, 63-34. Senate: GOP; House: GOP. GOP Gov. Jon M. Huntsman Jr. Legislature draws districts; governor can veto. Current seats: 2 GOP, 1 DEM.
Some states, while not gaining or losing House seats through reapportionment, may have to redistrict because of changes in population density within the states, perhaps producing changes in which party holds specific seats.
The struggle to control state legislatures
The 2006 and 2008 elections left America with the fewest number of politically divided legislatures since 1982, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Democrats control 27 statehouses, the Republicans control 14, and 7 statehouses are split. (Nebraska is unicameral.)
The Democratic Party believed control of the House of Representatives could in large measure be achieved by focusing on gaining control of both chambers of state legislatures. Democrats underwrote that effort principally through the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, according to Rachel Morris, writing in Washington Monthly:
[M]any national Democrats have been turning their attention to elections for state legislatures, which in all but eight states draw the boundaries of congressional seats according to the census. The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (DLCC), a K-Street political organization focused on state races, is helping candidates in places like Michigan with money, fundraising assistance, training, and logistical support. Emily’s List, a large political action committee that aims to elect more pro-choice women to Congress, is also pouring resources into state campaigns, and training both male and female candidates with the aim of winning legislative chambers to control redistricting. And this August, the DLCC, along with other national groups, established a tax-exempt organization called Foundation for the Future, which plans to raise and spend $17 million to coordinate Democrats’ long-term redistricting efforts. Political reporters this year have been understandably consumed with the few dozen close congressional races that could shift the balance of power in Washington after November. But they’ve missed a similarly fierce and focused battle over state legislative seats, one that could be just as important in determining control of the House in the not-so-distant future. [emphasis added]
That strategy appears, at first glance, to have succeeded. Democrats now control legislatures in 27 states, compared with the GOP’s 14. Of the 21 states (listed earlier) expected to gain or lose House seats, state legislatures draw district boundaries in 17. Of the 21 lose-or-gain states, Democrats control 11 legislatures; the GOP controls 6.
But the states held by Democrats represent a net loss of 8 seats; those controlled by the GOP represent a net gain of 9 seats. The states legislatively controlled by Democrats have a combined 113 Democratic House seats and 49 GOP House seats. The states legislatively controlled by Republicans have a combined 35 Democratic seats and 53 GOP seats.
Is it possible that despite controlling more state legislatures in gain-or-loss states, the Democrats could actually lose seats in the House through reapportionment and redistricting? State legislators are politicians. Within the limitations set by law, they will use redistricting to protect their parties’ interests. But if the Democrats control states that will have net loss of seats in the House, how will their party be best served?
The power of governors
Governors enjoy potent political influence over redistricting. As politicians, they are the titular heads of their parties. Through patronage, they can reward or punish the behaviors of others — such as legislators. They can choose to campaign — or not — for legislative incumbents or challengers. Governors simply know too many people — and have influence over them — throughout their states for their political clout to be ignored during redistricting battles.
In many states, governors, while by law not the principal author of new district lines, hold veto power over legislatively drafted districts. (Note that in cases where governors and legislatures cannot agree, courts often step in to draw district lines.) Obviously, it is to the advantage of a party to control both the governorship and both chambers of the legislature.
Following the 2008 elections, Democrats control governments in 16 states; Republicans are in charge in only 9 states. But …
Democrats rule over 16 states that represent, after reapportionment, a net loss of 5 House seats; The GOP commands 9 states that represent a net gain of 9 House seats.
More change is ahead. Writes Sam Stein at HuffPo:
An abundance of [governorships] are in play. There will be 36 gubernatorial races in 2010, compared to 11 such elections this cycle. Of those 36, 19 are for state houses currently held by Democrats. And of those 19, ten will involve Democratic governors who won’t be running for reelection (either because of term limits or retirement). …
In 28 states, the governor has the authority to veto any redistricting plan. In eight separate states, the governor can veto only a congressional plan. In another five states, the governor is responsible for appointing members to the redistricting board. And in three states — not separate — the governor is directly involved in redrawing the district him or herself. In only eight states does the executive body actually not play a role. As both Democratic and Republican officials readily acknowledge, the partisan makeup of a newly shaped congressional district will almost certainly reflect the politics of the sitting governor. [emphasis added]
The Democrats have enjoyed enormous successes in Congress since 2004 and now control the federal government. A Democrat will sit in the White House. Democrats will run the Senate and the House. But the key to continuance of Democratic control lies in the states. Over the next three years, 49 states will have gubernatorial races. Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson has written that “[r]ight now, the GOP is executing a plan to take 38 governorships over the next three years. If they accomplish this, they will have the power to shrewdly alter election district borders and steal back Congress.”
Similarly, margins of Democratic control in state legislatures are often narrow. A statement on redistricting by the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee says, “Currently, of the 36 state legislatures that control Congressional redistricting, 27 chambers in 21 of these states are within 5 seats of tying or changing hands. These 21 states control 260 Congressional districts.”
Democrats and progressives may rejoice at the televised images of a chastised GOP being driven out of D.C., its tail between its legs.
They shouldn’t get too comfy, and they certainly ought to keep their eyes on coming races for state legislatures and governorships. That’s where power will be maintained — or lost.