Redistricting season officially kicks off with the release of detailed population data from the U.S. Census Bureau that will be used to redraw voting districts nationwide — potentially helping determine control of the U.S. House in the 2022 elections and providing an electoral edge for the next decade.
The new data being released Thursday will show which counties, cities and neighborhoods gained or lost the most people in the 2020 census. That will serve as the building block to redraw 429 U.S. House districts in 44 states and 7,383 state legislative districts across the U.S. The official goal is to ensure each district has roughly the same number of people.
But many Republicans and Democrats will be operating with another goal — to ensure the new lines divide and combine voters in ways that make it more likely for their party's candidates to win future elections, a process called gerrymandering. The parties' successes in that effort could determine whether taxes and spending grow, climate-change polices are approved or access to abortion is expanded or curtailed.
Republicans need to gain just five seats to take control of the U.S. House in the 2022 elections — a margin that could potentially be covered through artful redistricting.
"Redistricting really is the ballgame this cycle in the House," said David Wasserman, an analyst for congressional races at The Cook Political Report. "Even tiny changes to district lines could have huge implications that tip the balance of power in the House."
As they did after the 2010 census, Republicans will hold greater sway in the redistricting process.
The GOP will control redistricting in 20 states accounting for 187 U.S. House seats, including the growing states of Texas, Florida, Georgia and North Carolina. By contrast, Democrats will control redistricting in just eight states accounting for 75 seats, including New York and Illinois, where the loss of a seat in each gives them a chance to squeeze out Republican incumbents.
In 16 other states accounting for 167 U.S. House seats, districts will be drawn either by independent commissions or by politically split politicians with legislative chambers led by one party and governors of another. Six states have just one U.S. House seat, so there are no district lines to be drawn.
States with significant population shifts provide some of the best opportunities for parties to gain an advantage through redistricting. They can add a favorable district, eliminate one held by their opponent or redraw a competitive district to contain a more comfortable majority of supporters.
In Texas, where Republicans hold 23 of the 36 U.S. House seats, fast growth in suburban Houston, Dallas and Austin helped the state gain two seats in the new round of redistricting. That growth has been driven by the migration of young, Latino, Black and college-educated residents — all core Democratic constituencies, said Kelly Ward Burton, president of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee.
"If you look at how the population has shifted over the decade and you draw a map that is consistent with that, Democrats gain seats," Burton said.
But Republicans in charge of redistricting could draw maps that split up those Democratic-leaning voters, adding some to predominantly Republican districts to give the GOP a shot at winning even more seats in Texas.
In Florida, which also is gaining a U.S. House seat, Republicans could use redistricting as an opportunity to redraw lines in rapidly growing central Florida to try to ensure Democratic-held seats have more GOP voters. Democratic Reps. Charlie Crist in St. Petersburg and Val Demings in Orlando are pursuing gubernatorial and U.S. Senate bids, respectively, leaving those districts without incumbents and making them obvious targets for reshaping.
After the 2010 census, Republicans who controlled redistricting in far more states than Democrats drew maps that gave them a greater political advantage in more states than either party had in the past 50 years, according to a new Associated Press analysis.
But Republicans won't hold as much power as they did last time in some key states. Republican-led legislatures will be paired with Democratic governors in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, which both had full GOP control after the 2010 census. In Michigan, a voter-approved citizens commission will handle redistricting instead of lawmakers and the governor. And in Ohio, voter-approved redistricting reforms will require majority Republicans to gain the support of minority Democrats for the new districts to last a full decade.
Ultimately, no matter how lines are drawn, elections are won based on the quality of candidates and their stance on issues, said Adam Kincaid, executive director of the National Republican Redistricting Trust, the GOP's redistricting hub.
"Republicans will take back the House next year because of Congressional Democrats' outdated policies and President Biden's failed leadership," Kincaid said.
The redistricting process will be conducted on a compressed timeline. States are getting the data more than four months later than originally scheduled because of difficulties in conducting the 2020 census during the coronavirus pandemic.
That means map-drawers will have to work quickly to meet constitutional deadlines in some states or seek judicial approval to take longer. Ohio's constitution, for example, sets a Sept. 15 deadline for a board to approve new state legislative maps.
"We're in a bit of a fix over how quickly we can get this done," said Ohio Senate President Matt Huffman, a Republican who is a member of the redistricting board.
In many states, the new districts are likely to face lawsuits as political parties continue jockeying for the best possible maps. After the 2010 census, redistricting lawsuits lasted for much of the following decade and led to significant changes in some states. Democrats gained a total of 11 seats in the U.S. House after courts struck down Republican-drawn districts in four states and ordered new ones between the 2016 and 2020 elections.
"If it hadn't been for Democratic lawsuits that overturned Republican-drawn maps in Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Florida and Virginia, Democrats would not be sitting in the majority in the House right now," Wasserman said.