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The Likely Impact of the Census Population Estimates

By Sean Trende
Published On: Last updated 04/02/2024, 09:32 AM EDT

One of the most consistent aspects of the Age of Trump is that stories that are important, but bland, often slip by without much public notice. How can “census estimates” possibly compete with “Trump Trial About Porn Star Hush Money!”?

But these less salacious stories do exist, and sometimes they must be revisited after the fact. So it is with the U.S. Census Bureau population estimates and the likely impact they will have on the upcoming decennial reapportionment (yes, believe it or not, we are almost halfway through the 2020s).

The census is, at least in theory, a complete enumeration of the American population. It is the first and last word on who is living in the United States – and where – and on how all those people are translated into seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. In the interim, however, the Census Bureau conducts the American Community Survey, or ACS. This is an ongoing sample of the U.S. population, which contacts millions of people each year in an attempt to estimate the ever-changing demographics of American society.

In December, the Census Bureau releases population estimates for the 50 states. These give us an opportunity to form educated guesses about where reapportionment is headed. Sometimes, they are quite good. In 2020, they were not so great, but some of that is likely related to the oddities of conducting a census in the middle of a pandemic.

In any event, looking at the release from 2023, if the reapportionment occurred today, California would lose two congressional seats, while Illinois, Minnesota and New York would each lose one. On the gains side, Arizona, Florida, and Idaho would each gain a seat, while Texas would gain two.

But these are the 2023 estimates; they reflect population growth for the first three years of the decade. What would things look like in 2030 if things proceeded apace?

If these trends continue at their current rates, the 2030 reapportionment would have some of the most dramatic district apportionment shifts in quite some time. Eighteen states would gain or lose districts. California would lose five seats in the House, while New York would lose three. Illinois would lose two, and Michigan, Minnesota, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin would all lose one.

At the same time, Texas and Florida would each gain four seats, while Arizona, Georgia, Idaho, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Utah would each gain one. Delaware would gain a second district for the first time since the early 1800s. 

But the population shifts might be slowing – or accelerating. Perhaps we might want to weigh more recent population shifts more heavily. If we do this, we see somewhat more modest changes: California loses four seats, New York three, and Illinois two. Minnesota, Oregon and Pennsylvania each lose one seat. On the other hand, Texas still gains four seats, while Florida gains three. Georgia, Idaho, North Carolina and Tennessee will each gain one, as will Utah.

Overall, the numbers do show movement from Democratic blue states to Republican red and reddish/purple states. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the additional districts that will be drawn will be red; extracting another Republican seat out of North Carolina or Georgia may be too difficult a feat. However, in the Electoral College the shifts will be real, although we don’t really know how states will lean three presidential elections from now. Probably the best we can say is that these numbers suggest continued migration from North to South, which is in many ways the story of American demographics for the past 80 years.

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