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Power Shift

How the results of the 2010 Census are changing the political map—and the balance of power in Washington

By Patricia Smith


Click to enlarge map
Remember all the talk last spring about how important it was to fill out those Census forms that came in the mail?

Now everyone can see why, as the nation's political map is literally being redrawn as a result of the data that the Census collected: 18 states are gaining or losing seats in the House of Representatives next year. The seats are moving primarily from states in the slow-growing Northeast and Midwest to the faster-growing South and West.

The U.S. population increased 9.7 percent over the last decade to a total of almost 309 million. But since the number of seats in the House stays the same at 435, some of those seats need to be redistributed among the states so that all congressional districts have roughly the same number of voters. (The Senate isn't affected by the Census, since every state, no matter how big or small, gets two seats.)

Texas, whose population increased by more than 20 percent, is the biggest winner, gaining four House seats. Ohio, on the other hand, whose population grew by just 1.6 percent, will lose two seats. Louisiana, whose population shrank in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, is the only southern state losing a seat.

New York will lose two House seats, down to 27. (The last time New York had 27 House seats was in the early 1820s.) This continues a slide that began after World War II, when New York's congressional delegation peaked at 45 members.

The Constitution mandates the national headcount every 10 years, and the tally reveals not only America's changing demographics—in terms of race, gender, age, and other categories—but also its shifting population. And that affects political representation in Washington—and how billions of federal dollars are distributed to the states.

Electoral College

Shifting power in Congress also means shifting clout in presidential elections. Each state's Electoral College votes are equal to its number of seats in the House, plus two for its Senators. (Oregon, for example, with 5 Congressmen and 2 Senators, has 7 electoral votes.)

The new congressional map will take effect next year and could impact the presidential race, with Republican-leaning states in the South and West gaining electoral votes at the expense of Democratic-leaning states in the Northeast and Midwest: If President Obama were to win the same states he carried in 2008, he would end up with six fewer electoral votes.

That said, the population gains in the South and West were driven overwhelmingly by minorities, particularly Hispanics, who tend to vote Democratic.

"Just because Texas is getting four new seats does not mean Republicans will get four new Republicans to Congress," says Tim Storey of the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The Census shows that the long-term movement of people, jobs, and political power to the South and the West (often referred to as the Sun Belt) from the Northeast and the Midwest (often referred to as the Rust or Snow Belt) is continuing. At the beginning of the 20th century, the West made up just 7 percent of the U.S. population, compared with nearly 25 percent today; the Northeast, which was then 28 percent of the population, has now dropped to 18 percent.

"As our economy shifts from industrial to post-industrial, to more high-tech and knowledge-based jobs, people can be more mobile and follow amenities like a sunny climate," says William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution. "They don't need to be near ports or major population centers anymore."

Political Musical Chairs

What happens next is that the states begin a once-a-decade redistricting process in which they redraw the boundaries of congressional districts. In most states, redistricting is handled by the state legislatures, though a few states* give the job to bipartisan commissions in an effort to make the process less political.

It's a messy, complicated task, and it's especially difficult for states that find themselves with fewer seats in the House than they had before. Think of it as a game of political musical chairs. Ohio, for example, will have to slice itself up into 18 districts instead of 20. That means the legislature will have to decide which two districts will no longer exist—and which two Congressmen are likely to lose their jobs, unless they run in a different district.

The nation's overall population growth this past decade was the slowest since the 1930s, which demographers attribute to falling birth rates among whites and the slowdown in immigration because of the recession.

The recession has also slowed down the long-term power shift to the South and West.

"There would have been more redistribution of seats from the Frost Belt to the Sun Belt," Frey says, "had we not had this economic slowdown in the last couple of years."

*Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, New Jersey, and Washington

(The New York Times Upfront, Vol. 143, January 31, 2011)