by Michael A. Smith, Professor of Political Science, Emporia State University

It’s time for redistricting.  What does that mean, and what insights does political science offer?

Every ten years, the country experiences reapportionment and redistricting as a result of the decennial Census mandated by the U.S. Constitution.  Reapportionment occurs first and it is now complete.  It refers to the reassignment of House seats among the states based on population changes, and it is carried out by the Census Bureau itself.  In recent decades, states in the Great Lakes and Great Plains regions have been losing seats while states in the “sunbelt” across the South and Southwest have been gaining.  We still see this pattern in 2020, but with some notable changes.

This map by U.S. Bureau of the Census shows the complete shift in House seats for 2020 relative to 2010.  The table below briefly summarizes the changes.  Those states not entered on the table had no change to their apportionment this time.

Reapportionment as a result of the 2020 Census

States losing one seat (# of seats 2023-2032) States gaining one seat (# of seats 2023-2032) States gaining two seats (# of seats 2023-2032)
California (52) Colorado (8) Texas (38)
Illinois (17) Florida (28)  
Michigan (13) Montana (2)  
New York (26) Oregon (6)  
Ohio (15) North Carolina (14)  
Pennsylvania (17)    
West Virginia (2)    

One of the most remarkable things present on the hyperlinked map and above table is the changes that did not occur.  Only three sunbelt states (Florida, North Carolina and Texas) gained seats.  Generally perceived as fast-growing, Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, and Utah did not gain seats.  Struggling with heat, drought, traffic, and sky-high housing costs, California lost a seat.

The Rocky Mountain and Pacific Northwest regions have now established themselves as growth centers in their own right, with Colorado, Montana and Oregon each gaining a seat.  The last is particularly ironic, since Oregonians’ iconic hostility to growth was famously captured in one-time Governor Tom McCall’s famous request, “for God’s sake, don’t move here.”  Apparently, people are doing so anyway.

This new map represents a shift of five electoral votes from states that supported President Biden in 2020, to states that supported former President Trump.  This would not have changed that election’s outcome.

After reapportionment comes redistricting.  This is the process by which states redraw the lines of their districts for the U.S. House, the state legislature (two houses each, except in Nebraska), and other state and local districts as well.  Patterns can be idiosyncratic and vary from state to state.  For example, in Ohio, the Columbus metropolitan area is rapidly gaining population while the state’s other urban areas are holding steady or losing.  In Georgia, the Atlanta metro has grown to the point where it can dominate statewide politics.  San Jose has overtaken San Francisco as the largest city in the Bay Area.

The conventional wisdom would say that Americans are leaving both central city and rural areas for the suburbs, but this thinking is dated and wildly incomplete.  Gentrification has brought the middle class back into cities, and many larger metros now feature more expensive real estate inside city limits than what can be found in the ‘burbs.  Meanwhile, as scholar-politician Myron Orfield pointed out about 20 years ago, the suburbs are increasingly differentiated, with older suburbs coming more and more to resemble the demographics of lower income inner city neighborhoods, while newer suburbs keep being built at the outskirts of the metropolitan areas.  Politically, many suburban areas such as St. Louis County, MO and Johnson County, KS have flipped over time from being Republican strongholds, to being battlegrounds, to having a pronounced Democratic lean.

Complexities and all, it’s time to start drawing new districts.  How will this process unfold?

This varies greatly depending on the process used by a particular state.  California first drew districts under its new system after the 2010 Census.  These districts were drawn by commissions of citizens who are registered as unaffiliated with any party and are not officeholders or registered lobbyists.  This was the capstone achievement of former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, and it took two attempts to get citizens to pass it as a ballot initiative.  Pass it they did, and California’s current districts were drawn and approved using the new system, bypassing the state General Assembly entirely.  Now, the citizens get another crack at it.

California’s approach is unique.  Twenty-nine states still rely on the state legislatures to draw new districts.  Combined, the residents of America’s nine most-populous states make up a majority of the country’s population.  Of those states, Texas, Florida, New York, Illinois, Georgia and North Carolina let the state legislatures draw districts.  Ohio and Pennsylvania have a “split” system, with a redistricting commission for state legislative districts but still allowing the state legislatures to draw the ones for Congress, though Ohio has certain checks for bipartisanship.

Democrats are up in arms this year about gerrymandering, or drawing districts deliberately to advantage a political party or constituency.  While rarely pronounced properly (named for Massachusetts politician Elbridge Gerry, it begins with a hard g), the topic seems to be on everyone’s lips these days.  Omnibus voting reform legislation proposed by Congressional Democrats and supported by President Biden included provisions for redistricting commissions, but it did not pass.

Democrats do have a point.  Consider the table below:

America’s nine most populous states by redistricting method, current legislative majority, and number of U.S. House seats

Nonpartisan commission (partisan majority, # of seats)

Legislature draws Congressional districts

(partisan majority, # of seats)

Mixed (partisan majority, # of seats)
California (Dem) (52) Florida (Rep) (28) Ohio (Rep) (16)
New York (Dem) (26) Georgia (Rep) (14)  
  Illinois (Dem) (17)  
  Pennsylvania (Rep) (17)  
  Texas (Rep) (38)  

Particularly for Democrats and their allies, this makes it tempting to embrace nonpartisan or bipartisan redistricting commissions.  Republican minorities in majority-Democratic states may join them.  For example, Schwarzenegger kept his promise to “terminate gerrymandering” (his phrase) while serving as a Republican governor in a state with Democratic legislative supermajorities.  This year, Illinois Republicans are apprehensive about redistricting.

In terms of examples to follow, the smaller state of Iowa has a particularly strong example of a bipartisan redistricting commission. It is evenly balanced between appointees of each party. This commission may not use partisan voting data in drawing the districts, nor may they split counties on the Congressional map.  Once their maps are drawn, the Iowa Legislature may only vote them up or down, they may not redraw the map.  If defeated, the commission takes another crack at the map and the Legislature gets another vote.  On the third try, the Legislature loses their say–once agreed upon by the commission, their map bypasses the Legislature and becomes law as-is.

On the other hand, gerrymandering districts for partisan purposes can cause considerable blowback.  In 2002, Kansas Republicans attempted to tweak the Kansas City-area 3rd district to make it unfavorable to incumbent Democrat Dennis Moore.  They moved heavily Democratic east Lawrence into the 2nd District.  Moore got re-elected anyway, but in 2006, 2nd district voters replaced longtime, Republican incumbent Jim Ryan with Democrat Nancy Boyda.  By moving Democrats out of the 3rd district into the 2nd, they had not made Moore vulnerable, rather, they had made Ryan vulnerable instead.  If you remove your political opponents from one district, you have to put them somewhere else.

Missouri Republicans face a similar dilemma this year.  They are tempted to split apart Democratic-voting Kansas City into two separate districts, diluting Democratic strength and removing one of only two safe Democratic seats left in the state.  But in so doing, they face a real risk of making the Republican incumbents in those other districts more vulnerable by adding more Democrats.  It may not be worth the risk.

In general, the current political alignments of the nation are vexing for Democrats.  Many states reflect national patterns:  Democrats generally have a majority of voters today.  In fact, starting in 1992, Democrats have won the plurality or majority in every presidential election except one (2004).  The problem is, Democratic voters tend to be packed into urban areas, while Republicans are spread across more territory.  Often, the vast majority of Democrats in a state are found in its bigger cities and older suburbs (Philadelphia and Pittsburgh; Cleveland, Columbus, and Cincinnati; St. Louis and Kansas City; etc.), but these voters do not help them in the rest of the state.  The same is true nationally– Hillary Clinton’s 3 million popular vote lead in 2016 was entirely due to California, which was not enough to rescue her in the Electoral College, where more-rural states have an advantage.  In the above table, two states that voted for Biden in 2020 have Republican majorities in both houses of the legislature:  Georgia and Pennsylvania.

One final note:  it is important not to assess gerrymandering by looking at maps alone.  In our forthcoming book Much Sound and Fury or the New Jim Crow (SUNY 2022), my colleagues Brian Hollenbeck and Deborah Hann analyze numerous approaches to drawing districts.  Ultimately, they agree with the U.S. Supreme Court’s opinion in Rucho v Common Cause (2019), in which judges ruled that no objective definition of gerrymandering is possible.  Hollenbeck and Hann found that sometimes, contorted districts result in more-competitive races and more representation of minorities than do compact ones.  In Rucho, the Court declined to intervene in cases of possible partisan gerrymandering but kept open the possibility of intervention in racial gerrymandering.

With Democrats holding only a nine-seat advantage in the U.S. House, there is a lot on the line.  Yet simply gerrymandering for partisan advantage is not as easy as it sounds.  Moving supporters of the opposition party out of one district means putting them in other districts, and when political alliances start shifting or an incumbent retires, things can get complicated.  In addition, Democrats’ primary problem today is that their voters are packed into large urban areas and not more distributed across the countryside.  Gerrymandering is a concern for them as well, but a secondary one.


Michael A. Smith is Professor of Political Science and Chair of Social Sciences at Emporia State University.  He has authored or co-authored three books, the most recent of which is co-authored with two Emporia State colleagues, Drs. Bob Grover and Rob Catlett.  It is entitled Low Taxes and Small Government: The Brownback Experiment in Kansas and was released by Lexington in 2019.  He has other academic publications as well, and also writes newspaper columns carried throughout Kansas as part of the Insight Kansas group and blogs for the MPSA. Michael appears occasionally on television and radio in Kansas and western Missouri to discuss state and national politics.  He was an expert witness for the plantiff in the Bednasek v Kobach case, decided together with Fish v Kobach by the federal district court for Kansas in 2018.  Michael teaches courses in American politics, state and local government, and political philosophy. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Missouri in 2000. Follow Michael on Twitter