The Dark Horse of U.S. Politics: The U.S. Census
by Sasha Galbreath
by Sasha Galbreath
As the country prepares for what is widely considered to be the most charged election in recent memory, an effort that impacts politics well beyond a presidential term is underway: the U.S. census.
Since 1790, the census has been a constitutionally-mandated count of every person living in the United States and the five U.S. territories. Census data informs many aspects of government programs, including federal funding to states; decision-making on new infrastructure, industries, and jobs; and determining the apportionment of congressional representation.
At least thirty-eight state legislatures rely on this data to draw congressional and state electoral districts for the upcoming decade—surpassing the term durations of a two-term president, a U.S. senator, or five House cycles, not to mention several terms in a state’s own legislature. In each of these states, whichever party wins the majority this cycle has the power to redraw voting districts, informed by census data (including voters’ party registrations), which will be enforced until the next census.
While perhaps the average American doesn’t give much heed to filling out the census, both parties are pouring money into shoring up their respective state chamber majorities, and for good reason.
In the 2010 midterm cycle, the year of the last census, Democrats lost about 700 state legislative seats and 20 state chambers, according to FiveThirtyEight’s Gerrymandering Project. The result? In 2011, Republicans redrew almost five times as many congressional districts as Democrats, leading to more House seat victories than their share of the major-party vote in 2012, 2014, and 2016.
This year, Democrats are trying to replicate their opponents’ success: the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, National Democratic Redistricting Committee, and super PAC Forward Majority committed an aggregate $67 million to unseat Republicans, gain a majority advantage in key state legislatures, and better position the party to redraw districts in 2021. Suffice to say, political parties and their money-toting PACs have realized census data is the gift that keeps on giving.
Texas could prove to be a prime example of the importance of census data. After picking up a whopping 12 seats in the state house last cycle, the Democrats are only nine seats away from securing a majority. More encouraging news for Texan Democrats: it just so happens that nine Republican state districts voted for then-Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke in 2018. Raising the stakes even further, three-and-a-half million people have moved into Texas since 2010, potentially adding at least two more congressional seats to the delegation through the census. This means that by the end of this year, the state may have a 38-member-strong congressional delegation, equating to a Texas-sized 9% voting bloc in the U.S. House. In response, Democrats have injected upwards of $10 million into the state in a fervent effort to flip the legislature, and Republicans are scrambling to retain their majority.
Texas is just the start—according to the Electronic Data Service (EDS), fourteen other states are expected to gain more seats in the U.S. House next year, including swing states like Florida and North Carolina.
The U.S. Census grants invaluable insight into the future of state legislatures, congressional representation, and how those institutions will influence laws, policies, and livelihoods in the next decade. For those who operate in state politics, this is a big deal for anyone who has been fighting for or against ballot measures, legislation, or partisan majorities that run counter to their interests. For those who work on the federal level, this election could heavily influence the House elections in 2022 through redrawn congressional districts by state legislatures in 2021
Once the chips fall on November 3rd, we must start laying the groundwork for what’s to come from newly-drawn congressional and state districts, a changing representational makeup, and more clients asking, “what’s next?”
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