The 2020 census data released last week depicts a paradox. The country grew by only 7.4 percent in the past decade, slower than any decade except the 1930s. Just seven House seats will shift states, far below average. But the U.S. population continues to diversify — more people, and from more backgrounds, are living in suburban and urban areas than ever. States in the West and the South experienced the most growth due to an influx of people moving in from other countries and other states.
What are the political and economic implications of the data? The new dynamics rightly scare the GOP. We can expect them to manipulate the maps and, in their words, ”secure a decade of power” through redistricting, not through the voters. Republicans, out of step with the voters and lacking coherent policy solutions, must rely on gerrymandering, vote suppression, and the filibuster to frustrate reforms the changing populace supports.
Census Data Overview
The census results show a diversifying and aging America. The past ten years were the slowest period of growth since the Great Depression, at 7.4 percent. The white population declined for the first time in American history; population growth was led by increases in the Asian, Latino, and multiracial communities at 36 percent, 23 percent, and 276 percent respectively.
Growth in the Latino community, in particular, led to an increase in population in southern states like Texas, Georgia, North Carolina, Virginia, and Florida. This will lead to more representation for the Latino community in states like Texas, which gained two new congressional seats. Colorado, Florida, Montana, North Carolina, and Oregon all gained one seat, while California, Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia all lost one seat.
Population Growth by Congressional District
The population has also become slightly more urban and suburban, with 86 percent living in a metro area, compared to 85 percent in 2010. Metro areas overall grew by 9 percent. This growth is fueled by rural population decline and slow population growth overall. Politically this presents Democrats with a mixed bag going into the 2022 midterms:
- Good News: Diverse, urban, and suburban voters are more likely to support Democrats, while key Republican constituencies — white and rural — are shrinking. Fast-growing cities in the South and Southwest will make it harder for Republican state legislatures to “crack” Democratic districts, likely saving a few blue urban seats. Additionally, the collapse of rural populations in Illinois and New York will allow Democrats to take maximum advantage of their control over the redistricting process.
- Bad News: Many majority-black rural districts in the South that are represented by Democrats saw big drops in population. Also, population declines in the Rust Belt could lead to Democratic voters being packed together in those states.
The new data released will inform how $1.5 trillion of annual federal spending will be directed. One group that will be disproportionately underrepresented when federal funds are distributed based on new census data is children. More than 1.5 million children are likely missing from the final 2020 census count. The undercount will not affect all communities evenly. Over half of the children left out are Latino, meaning that their communities will likely lose out on billions of dollars in SNAP, TNAF, Section 8 vouchers, Federal Pell Grants, Medicaid, and much more for the next ten years.
While there was likely a fairly significant undercount of children, that did not reverse the trend toward an aging population. The ratio of working-age adults to seniors went from 4.8:1 in 2010 to 3.7:1 in 2020. The graying of America bodes ill for the solvency of Medicare and Social Security, which rely on contributions from labor income. This new census data underscores the need to diversify the FICA revenue base to include income from capital gains.
States will use the 2020 census data to draw new congressional maps that will last for the next decade. Even though more usable data won’t be released for another couple of weeks, many partisan state actors will start drafting maps that are favorable to their party. Drawing maps has never been easier due to sophisticated technology that can optimize each district.
Redistricting works differently across the states. Some have state legislatures draw maps: 20 of these are Republican-controlled, drawing 187 districts total, while eight are Democratic-controlled, drawing 75 districts. Party control is split in six states, totaling 46 districts. Ten states use independent commissions which will draw 121 districts. Six states are single districts, giving Republicans an advantage when it comes to congressional control.
Congress has not yet acted on gerrymandering or other issues that weaken our election administration and voting rights. Previous provisions of the Voting Rights Act have been struck down by the Supreme Court and require legislative action to restore.
- Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act establishes preclearance, in which a change affecting voting, such as a redistricting plan, may not be enacted by a covered jurisdiction unless it can show the change does not have a discriminatory purpose or effect. However, this section was voided when the Supreme Court ruled in Shelby County v. Holder that the preclearance formula was outdated and needed to be updated by Congress. Congress attempted to do so in 2019 with the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. The bill passed the House but died in the Senate.
- Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act allows voters to seek judicial relief if their voting rights are denied based on race. Last month in Brnovich v. DNC, the Supreme Court made it significantly more difficult to challenge discriminatory voting laws, effectively weakening Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.
These legislative options on the table would protect elections and voting rights:
- For the People Act has several anti-gerrymandering provisions. Title II establishes requirements for redistricting that would require independent commissions, ban partisan gerrymandering, and provide stronger protections for minority communities. The bill has been filibustered by Senate Republicans. In order to have fair voting maps, this legislation must be passed soon, or unfair maps will be enacted for the next 10 years.
- John Lewis Voting Rights Act was reintroduced in the House this Tuesday and will receive a vote soon. This bill would establish new requirements for preclearance. If a state or locality fell under the requirements, its redistricting plans would be reviewed by the Department of Justice. If redistricting plans were deemed discriminatory based on race, they would be struck down. The bill also seeks to strengthen Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act by establishing standards for voting rights litigation.
With the Shelby and Brnovich decisions, and the lack of legislation from Congress, states could make redistricting plans that dilute the power of minority voters for the decade to come.
So Much Data, So Little Time
The 2020 census data departs from what we have seen in the past, with slower growth, an aging population, and, at the same time, a rapidly diversifying electorate. We would expect a more diverse population to favor Democrats. But without proper voting rights and elections protections provided in the For the People Act, and filibuster reform in the Senate, demographics cannot be destiny, as designed to be.
Congress has to act now to pass gerrymandering and voting rights provisions to prevent harmful redistricting in this current cycle. New maps may be gerrymandered and discriminatory and will help determine control of the House until 2032. All Americans deserve the right to free and fair elections, which starts at their district’s map.