Will the 2020 Census Impact Elections and Congress?

Michael Li has spent years looking back at the redistricting process and how it has played out in Congress and statehouses over the last decade.

Now, it’s become something to anticipate in 2020.

“As of now, this is a future story,” he said.

In a session with National Press Foundation Paul Miller fellows, redistricting expert Michael Li of the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law gave an overview of that process, and how it will play out during and after the 2020 census.

Li (bio, Twitter) led fellows though a description of the challenges the U.S. Census Bureau will face in 2020, given its budget constraints. “Think about having Thankgiving dinner with the same budget but more people,” he said. The Census Bureau is doing things differently, with most of the counting being done online; only for those people who don’t respond or are hard to reach will door-knockers visit houses.

Once those numbers come in, federal officials will reapportion the U.S. House of Representatives based on population, taking seats from a handful of states and adding them to others.  Right now, projections show that six states could gain House members (Oregon, Arizona, Colorado, North Carolina, Florida and Texas, which could gain three). Nine could lose them, mostly in the Upper Midwest and Northeast.

After that is done, it is time for redistricting; it’s up to states to redraw their congressional and state legislative districts. Li led fellows through that process, which is different by state and often subject to the worst kind of backroom deals and political brawls.

There is a growing trend toward using independent commissions to draw district lines, but most are still done the old-fashioned way. And that’s where problems can come in.

“The biggest predictor of gerrymandering is does one party control the whole process?” he asked.

Li also described the basic requirements for redistricting, such as what it means that districts are supposed to be contiguous or compact, what it means to keep communities of interest intact, and what the rules are for handling city or county boundaries.

This program is funded by Arnold Ventures. NPF is solely responsible for the content.

Michael Li
Senior counsel, Democracy Program, Brennan Center for Justice
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