How states losing House seats decide which districts are cut

New redistricting commissions in several states add to uncertainty

The Michigan delegation — which includes, from left, Reps. Debbie Dingell, Haley Stevens, Rashida Tlaib and Elissa Slotkin — will have one less member after next year, and an independent commission will draw the new map. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
The Michigan delegation — which includes, from left, Reps. Debbie Dingell, Haley Stevens, Rashida Tlaib and Elissa Slotkin — will have one less member after next year, and an independent commission will draw the new map. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted April 29, 2021 at 6:15am

The announcement that California and six other states, mostly in the Midwest and Northeast, will lose House seats in the next Congress set off a wave of fundraising appeals from incumbent Democrats concerned about their efforts to hold on to their chamber majority in 2022. 

Democrats outnumber Republicans by almost 2-to-1 in the congressional delegations that will be reduced because of census data released Monday

But the lost seats do not automatically mean that fewer Democrats will come to Washington from the Rust Belt and Northeast. 

“The bottom line is, of these seven states that are losing seats, it is entirely possible that will all be self-canceling, and there will be no net change,” said Sam Wang, director of the Princeton Gerrymandering Project. 

Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, New York, Pennsylvania, California and West Virginia are each slated to lose a seat because their populations did not grow as fast as states in the South and Mountain West.

[How states gaining seats will redraw their maps]

Democrats control the redistricting process in several of the states losing seats, and independent or bipartisan commissions will draw new boundaries in some of the others. 

But it’s hard to predict with certainty which party will come out ahead, partly because the details about where the population grew within the states will not be released until late summer or early fall. Also, efforts to redraw lines for a partisan advantage in one district could inadvertently make a neighboring district more competitive. 

“It’s all basically engineering,” Wang said. “When you are parking your car and trying to get enough clearance on one side, you end up scratching the car on the other side. Redistricting is like that.”

Here’s how the process will work in each of the states slated to lose a seat: 

West Virginia

West Virginia’s three districts are all held by Republicans, and the party will have control of redrawing the lines. But while the closest a Democrat came to winning a House seat last fall was the 37 percent won by Rep. Alex Mooney’s opponent in November, the loss here would still likely be a net minus for the GOP. 

California

California, which had never lost a congressional seat because of the census before, assigned, in 2011, the job of drawing district lines to an independent, nonpartisan commission.

The state’s current delegation is skewed toward Democrats, who hold 42 of the state’s 53 seats. That would make the Democrats more likely to be the party that loses a seat, Wang said. 

Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball newsletter at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, wrote that the commission could look at underpopulated districts in Democratic-dominated Los Angeles County, for example. 

The National Republican Congressional Committee, the campaign arm of House Republicans, listed four California Democrats on its initial target list for the 2022 cycle, which the committee said at the time took redistricting predictions into account. Those members are John Garamendi in the 3rd District, Josh Harder in the 10th, Katie Porter in the 45th and Mike Levin in the 49th. 

Pennsylvania

The 18-member delegation in Pennsylvania is evenly split between Republicans and Democrats. The Republican-led legislature is charged with drawing district boundaries, but their maps are subject to a veto by Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, and the state Supreme Court, which would oversee any challenge, is majority Democrat. 

A group of Pennsylvania Democrats, represented by election lawyer Marc Elias,  filed a lawsuit Tuesday asking the state court to take over the redistricting process, anticipating a partisan impasse. Elias is leading similar challenges in Louisiana and Minnesota, which have divided governments but where the number of seats are not slated to change. 

Democratic Rep. Madeleine Dean, a possible candidate for the state’s open Senate seat, sent out a fundraising solicitation Wednesday, saying that the redistricting process would likely make it more difficult for her to hold on to her House seat. 

But Christopher Borick, a Muhlenberg College political science professor, said the lost seat will likely be one held by a Republican. 

“The reality is that Republicans know that they will not get a signature from the governor unless it is something that he thinks is fair and reasonable. Do they want to press the issue and come up with something he is going to veto?” he said. 

He added that population losses in the northern and western parts of the state would make it easier for lawmakers to justify taking a seat from there, but that could open the door to dispersing Republican voters to competitive seats held by Democrats, such as the 7th and 8th districts in Eastern Pennsylvania, held by Susan Wild and Matt Cartwright, who are both NRCC targets. 

Michigan

This is the first year that Michigan’s district lines will be drawn by an independent, bipartisan redistricting commission of 13 registered voters randomly selected through an application process. The state’s 14-member House delegation is evenly split between Republicans and Democrats. 

“Nobody knows how this is going to go down,” said Tim Bledsoe, a political science professor at Wayne State University. “Clearly, everything in Michigan is at risk of changing pretty dramatically.” 

The uncertainty hasn’t stopped Reps. Haley Stevens and Elissa Slotkin — the two Michigan Democrats on the NRCC target list — from sending out fundraising appeals this week. 

“Our independent redistricting commission will have to redraw the maps to make 13 districts where for the last ten years there have been 14,” Stevens’ pitch read. “That means our district is getting new voters — and could become even more competitive.” 

Illinois

Democrats control the state government that will redraw districts in Illinois, leading to speculation that they will cut a seat currently held by a Republican. But the state’s delegation in Washington is heavily tilted toward Democrats, who hold 13 seats to the Republicans’ five. To cut that GOP delegation to four might mean incumbent Democrats’ districts become more competitive.

“The Illinois legislature will surely try to eliminate a Republican seat but the math is hard because they have so few Republican seats to begin with,” Wang said. “The only way they can make that work is if they have to make their wins on the Democratic side narrower to support the same number of districts. … At some point, they could end up drawing too close and end up with narrow wins.” 

Ohio

The Buckeye State’s Republican-controlled legislature has ultimate control over the district lines if a bipartisan commission fails to devise a map. That was considered a factor when Democrat Tim Ryan announced Monday that he would run for the state’s open Senate seat next year instead of seeking reelection to his Youngstown-area district. 

But Ohio, where Republicans hold 12 seats to the Democrats’ four, is another one where current district lines leave little room for partisan maneuvering, Wang said. Republicans previously worked to pack Democrats into fewer districts to make other parts of the state safer for the GOP, and Ohio faced a federal court order to redraw its districts before the 2020 election. That order was overturned, however, after the Supreme Court ruled on a different redistricting case.

“They are so gerrymandered and lopsided that if they get rid of a seat based on their current map, it would most likely be a Republican seat,” Wang said. One Republican in the delegation, Steve Stivers of the 15th District, announced last week he would resign next month to take a job as CEO of the state Chamber of Commerce.

New York

An independent commission draws district lines in New York, but the Democratic supermajority in the state Legislature could overrule the panel. That means Democrats could work to ensure that the lost seat is a Republican one, Wang said. Voters in November will also decide on a ballot measure that would allow state lawmakers to ignore the commission’s proposal and enact their own plan. 

The current New York delegation stands at 19 Democrats and eight Republicans.