Cities, Not States, Will Matter in Census Power Shake-Up

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(Bloomberg Opinion) -- New state population estimates for 2019, released last week by the U.S. Census Bureau, have given political scientists the data they need to project changes to congressional apportionment after the 10-year census is tabulated this spring. Slower population growth and Americans moving less frequently will mean that fewer congressional seats, and Electoral College votes, will change between states than usual.

That relative calm masks some of the bigger changes within states. Because rural America is aging and population growth is increasingly concentrated in large metro areas, there will be a transfer of power to urban and suburban communities.

Consider the shifts projected in New York and Texas. New York is expected to lose one congressional seat while Texas gains two or three seats, continuing a long-running trend of states in the Northeast and Midwest losing seats to the South and West. An observer watching this process through a partisan lens might snicker at the thought of high-tax and congested New York City losing people and political power to low-tax, conservative Texas.

But the kind of communities that are growing and shrinking in New York and Texas paint a different picture. Population data at the county level is available only through 2018, but it shows that in New York State nine out of the 10 counties that added at least 5,000 people in the 2010s are in New York City and its suburbs. Of the state’s 62 counties, 46 lost population. When new district lines are drawn for the 2022 elections, New York City will have just as many congressional seats and influence as it does today. Upstate and rural New York will have lost a seat.

A similar dynamic is playing out in Texas. Of 254 counties, 96 lost people over the past decade. More than 70% of the state’s population growth has occurred in 10 counties, all of which are in the metro areas of Austin, Dallas, Houston and San Antonio. Those 10 counties — the types of communities that have shifted toward Democrats over the past few years — will add the equivalent of two congressional seats.

With political patterns increasingly based on metro versus rural areas rather than red states versus blue states, a better way to frame the changes in New York and Texas is that political power is shifting from the rural and conservative parts of New York to the urbanizing and increasingly liberal parts of Texas.

There are some caveats with this analysis. Allocating congressional seats isn’t a neutral process — it’s implemented by partisan legislators or independent commissions and overseen by the courts, depending upon the state. Although Democrats have an outside chance of flipping the state house in Texas and having some say in that state’s redistricting process, the safer bet is that it will be run by Republicans. They’ll be able to draw maps more favorable to them, even in places where Democrats are moving. And congressional seats are allocated based on people being actually counted in the census, and an undercount — particularly in states with lots of undocumented immigrants like Texas — could result in the state getting fewer seats, and fewer districts in its diverse metro areas and communities near the Mexican border.

The broad dynamic of growing metro areas and stagnant or shrinking rural communities in the context of an America with fewer births and less immigration is likely to be the pattern in the census for the foreseeable future.

States in the Northeast and Midwest may not be able to fight a loss of congressional seats to states in the South and West, but if you’re a Brooklyn or Queens resident seeing upstate New York and rural Ohio lose seats to Houston and Dallas might make you smile all the same.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Conor Sen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a portfolio manager for New River Investments in Atlanta and has been a contributor to the Atlantic and Business Insider.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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