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Posted at 5:27 PM ET, 12/20/2010

The Fix's reapportionment primer

By Aaron Blake

The U.S. Census Bureau is making a big announcement Tuesday, when it announces which states are going to gain and lose seats in the next Congress. (And, yes, we are genuinely excited.)

The congressional reapportionment process, which is done after the census every 10 years, means some pretty significant changes for plenty of states. States that add districts will have to figure out where to put them (a good problem to have) while states that are losing districts may have to match incumbents against each other in the 2012 election (a bad problem to have).

According to the latest Election Data Services estimates, 18 states are projected to gain or lose seats. But that won't be official until Tuesday, and a few states are teetering right on the edge for that final seat.

Here's six big questions that we'll get answers to when the Census makes its big announcement tomorrow. And, make sure to stay tuned to the Fix for post announcement analysis.

Question 1: Does New York lose two seats?

If the answer is yes, advantage Republicans.

Ohio is currently the only state projected to lose two seats, but it could have some company. According to the most recent projections, New York is right on the fence between losing one and two congressional seats. It's basically a foregone conclusion that a pair of incoming freshman Republicans in the western part of the state will be drawn into one district. If the state loses two seats, it's likely to come at the expense of a Democrat in New York City. The state features split control of the redistricting process, so it makes sense that a loss of two seats would lead to both sides taking a hit.

Question 2: Does Texas gain four seats?

If the answer is yes, advantage Republicans.

Along with New York, Texas is the other state that is right on the brink. The question for the Lone Star State is a very different one, though, because it's the only state that is guaranteed to gain multiple congressional seats. But, the difference between gaining three seats and four seats is significant. Republicans control the drawing of the map, but the Voting Rights Act will probably force them to draw at least two new majority-Hispanic districts, regardless of whether they get three or four new seats. Getting four districts would allow Republicans to draw two GOP-friendly districts to offset the fact that the two new majority-Hispanic districts are likely to go Democratic. If Republicans only gain three seats, that likely means only one GOP district. (Make sure to check out our look at redistricting in Texas from last month.)

Question 3: Does Florida gain two seats?

If the answer is yes, advantage Republicans.

If Florida gains two seats and New York loses two, the Sunshine State will be tied with New York for the third-largest congressional delegation in the country. Republicans control the drawing of the map in Florida, but a ballot measure that passed this year attempts to narrow their ability to draw districts that are too politically motivated. How much they will actually be restricted is an open question, but Republicans feel good about their ability to draw the map. Population gains in southern Florida and the Tampa Bay area should allow Republicans to try and draw two GOP-friendly districts. At the same time, nothing is for certain here, and we could be headed for a long legal battle either way.

Question 4: Does Arizona gain two seats?

If the answer is yes, advantage Democrats

Along with Texas and Florida, the only other state that could gain multiple seats is Arizona, which also gained two in the last round of reapportionment in 2000. The chances here are slimmer, though. The redistricting process in Arizona is handled by a bipartisan commission, but this is still a red state, and the first district that gets added will probably have to be a conservative one in the eastern Phoenix suburbs. The addition of a second new district would shrink the average population of a district enough so that a new Hispanic-majority district, which would likely go Democratic, could probably be drawn in Phoenix. The commission gave each party one new district in 2001, so it seems likely they would each get one this time as well.

Question 5: Does North Carolina get a new seat?

If the answer is yes, advantage Democrats

The Tar Heel State, in the most recent projections, trailed Texas, New York, California and Arizona for the final seat (No. 435). But that may be deceiving. Kimball Brace, who does the projections for Election Data Services, noted that the estimates don't include overseas military personnel (for lack of good data). North Carolina, of course, has Fort Bragg and Camp Lejeune, which means plenty of soldiers overseas. The overseas personnel pushed the state over the top when it narrowly won seat No. 435 in 2000, and it could do so again this time. Republicans, who control the redistricting process here, are expected to make big changes. But adding another district to the map -- even if it is likely to be a very safe Republican one -- could make it more difficult for the GOP to weaken Democratic incumbents. Even then, though, it's the difference between definitely gaining one seat and maybe gaining a few others, and Republicans are in a good position.

Question 6: Do Minnesota or Illinois hold onto their seats?

If the answers are yes, incumbents breathe a big sigh of relief.

Most of the states on the brink right now are either staying where they are or gaining a seat -- both results that are relatively stress-free for incumbents. But there are a few states where some incumbents are sweating, because their states are a hair's breadth away from losing a seat. The most notable is Minnesota, which made the cut to keep its eighth seat by just more than 15,000 people in the most recent estimates. The other is Illinois, which fell 75,000 people short and appears likely to drop from 19 districts to 18. Another state that has an outside chance at keeping all of its districts is Missouri, which was just behind Illinois in the pecking order. Because all three states have pretty malleable maps, it's not certain exactly which incumbents could lose their districts. But Democrats seem more likely to gain, because all three states are more Democratic-leaning at the statewide level than the makeup of their current congressional delegations reflects.

By Aaron Blake  | December 20, 2010; 5:27 PM ET
Categories:  Redistricting  
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