Reallocating congressional representation
An overview of congressional reapportionment and redistricting
Every ten years, following the U.S. Census, states draw electoral maps that determine our representation in Congress. It’s important for us to understand the process that leads to new electoral maps—not only does it affect our representation in Congress, but it’s the first step to preventing unfair and biased electoral outcomes.
This year, gerrymandering, botched Census data, and political polarization are creating a tense setting for the 2022 midterms. To help make sense of it all, this post will provide a very brief summary of the congressional reapportionment and redistricting process.
Figure 1 below provides a quick overview—after the Census, the federal government allocates congressional seats based on population. States then draw and implement their new maps.
One of the great constitutional compromises was the development of a bicameral legislature. The compromise, still in place today, hinges on population and representation: every state has two Senators, regardless of population. The House, however, awards congressional seats based on the population of the state.
As Figure 2 below shows, the population of the US is always growing, but the number of representatives (435) has stayed the same since 1913. But growth doesn’t happen at the same rate everywhere—population ebbs and flows throughout the country.
In order for all congressional districts to have equal populations, representation in the House must be recalculated every few years. This measurement of population and the allocation of seats is the reapportionment process.
Because the number of seats are fixed, but the population is not, some states will gain or lose a congressional seat during this process. States with high rates of growth will maintain or gain seats; while states with slow growth will lose a seat.1
Historical data gives us some indication of where growth and loss are likely to happen. Figure 3 show the districts of high growth (green) and slow growth (grey) from 1960-2010. The south and sunbelt are areas of consistent growth, while the rustbelt and midwest face seat loss.
These trends have continued for 2020—Texas, Florida, and the mountain west will gain seats, while the midwest and rustbelt will lose some. Interestingly, this is the first year ever that California is losing a seat—although it’s still the most populous state in the nation (by a lot), it’s rate of growth did not match that of the states below in green.
After a state is allocated congressional seats, state-level institutions2 use this information to draw new maps. There are three types of mapmaking institutions: state legislatures (split or partisan), commissions (bipartisan or nonpartisan groups), or courts (when either the legislature or commission fail to find a solution).
While commissions have grown in popularity overtime, particularly in states under Democratic-controlled legislatures, Republican-controlled state legislatures are the most common type of institution in 2022 (Figure 5).
The goal should be to keep congressional districts as undisturbed as possible. The more a boundary changes, the more people that are affected, which can lead to confusion for voters and poor representation in Congress.
In reality, this doesn’t happen. Overtime, certain populations—particularly foreign born and economically vulnerable like the unemployed—are more likely to see their congressional boundaries change.
Changes to congressional districts make it harder to vote: when your district borders change, your district number, represenattive, or polling place can change, too. This introduces significant confusion that turns-off many voters. At a deeper level, these changes diminish the quality of representation that an individual receives. When you your demographic group is more likely be moved around every ten years, your needs are less likely to be met by a congressperson.
A note on gerrymandering
Although the terms “redistricting” and “gerrymandering” are used interchangeably—they are not the same. While redistricting is just the process of drawing new maps, gerrymandering is the purposeful manipulation of boundaries to create a district with a specific population.
Mapmakers will take into consideration several variables when drawing new maps: existing district lines, who currently holds the seat, school districts and territories, or partisanship and minority groups. Mapmakers have a lot of flexibility, and when they act in a way that benefits their personal or partisan goals, there are negative implications. And unfortunately, it’s common, particularly when partisan legislatures are responsible for redistricting.
So, what can we do?
On an individual level, we can educate ourselves and others about the reapportionment process in our state. Direct your ire at the state level (where redistricting occurs). And at the bare minimum, make sure you stay up-to-date on our voter registration, particularly on years ending in “2” when new maps go into effect (Hint: this year! Like, check right now!).
Bigger picture, there are grassroots efforts to change the reapportionment and redistricting process entirely by considering proportional representation (which is how most international democracies elect their lower chamber). If that’s of interest, you can read more here.
Even slight shifts have implications for the quality and consistency of representation that constituents receive. Minorities and economically vulnerable Americans are the most at risk for seeing their boundaries changes and seeing the representation diminish. And unfortunately, the current system is being abused by partisanship.
But change is always possible—the great American experiment! The first step in fair elections is figuring out the rules of the game so we can accurately demand change. So, thanks for reading and as always, send me your questions and share with a friend.
This is calculated by a surprisingly simple formula: each state starts with one seat. The remaining seats are allocated based on a priority ranking, which multiplies the state population times the exponent of the seat (seat two: 1/√(2(2-1); seat three: 1/√(3(3-1); etc.). Thus, for states to gain a seat, they have to have a higher rate of growth that other states.
Mapmaking, per the constitution, happens at the state level. See Article 1, Sec. 2.