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Representation for Some

Summary: A conservative push to base legislative districts on adult citizens would deprive young and diverse communities of political power and public goods.

A redistricting map of Pennsylvania
AP Photo/Keith Srakocic

Every 10 years, political districts at all levels of government are redrawn to make sure they are equal in population as required by the U.S. Constitution. footnote1_deasfuh 1 This happens in two phases. First, states determine the target size for districts after getting population counts from the Census Bureau, a process known as apportionment. States then draw boundaries for those districts, a process known as redistricting. Currently every state apportions representatives and draws congressional and state legislative districts on the basis of a state’s total population. footnote2_5bjuu64 2 Evenwel v. Abbott, 136 S.Ct. 1120, 1124 (2016) (“[A]ll States use total-population numbers from the census when designing congres- sional and state-legislative districts, and only seven States adjust those census numbers in any meaningful way.”). That is, when districts are drawn, all people living in the state, including children and noncitizens, are counted for the purposes of representation.

However, some Republican political operatives and elected officials aim to unsettle this long-standing practice by excluding children and noncitizens from the population figures used to draw state legislative districts. footnote3_sd452ig 3 Ari Berman, “Trump’s Stealth Plan to Preserve White Electoral Power,” Mother Jones, January/February 2020, voting-rights-texas/. Rather than count everyone, states would draw districts based only on the adult citizen population. This approach is rooted in an explicitly discriminatory plan to disadvantage growing Latino (and, to a lesser extent, Asian American and Black) communities. footnote4_lxlipac 4 Berman, “Trump’s Stealth Plan to Preserve White Electoral Power.” It would enable states to pack children and noncitizens, who are disproportionately Latino, Asian American, and Black, into sprawling, supersized legislative districts. footnote5_rmx5h0o 5 Brief of the Texas Senate Hispanic Caucus and the Texas House of Representatives Mexican American Legislative Caucus as Amicus Curiae, 17–19, Evenwel, No 14-940 (2016). Residents of these districts would receive less representation than they do under the total population approach that states currently use, and this could have tremendous consequences for the funding of crucial public goods — including schools and transportation — that are used by everyone in a community regardless of age or citizenship status.

Making such a break with current practice and precedent would be of dubious legality and would leave states vulnerable to a host of legal challenges. It also would have major practical implications for redistricting. This study looks at what such a change would mean for representation and the allocation of political power in the United States by focusing on its impact three demographically distinct states: Texas, Georgia, and Missouri.

Our findings include the following:

  • Citizen children, not noncitizens, would account for the overwhelming majority of those excluded in adult citizen–based districts. Citizen children make up more than 70 percent of those who would be excluded in Texas, 80 percent in Georgia, and 90 percent in Missouri.
  • Large portions of the population in all three states would no longer be counted in adult citizen–based districts. Nearly 36 percent of the total population in Texas, 30 percent in Georgia, and 25 percent in Missouri would be excluded from the apportionment of legislative seats.
  • Communities of color would be disproportionately impacted. Latino and Asian American communities in particular would suffer substantially greater exclusion than their white counterparts. While only about 20 percent of the white population across the three states would be left uncounted, nearly 30 percent of the Black population and more than 50 percent of the Latino and Asian American populations would be excluded from legislative districts. The situation in Georgia would be particularly stark, with nearly 70 percent of Latino residents, most of whom are children, excluded.
  • Diverse metropolitan areas that support majority-minority districts would cede representation to whiter, more rural regions. The Houston, Dallas, and Rio Grande Valley regions of Texas would see sharp reductions in representation. In Georgia, the apportionment shift would hit metro Atlanta. And in Missouri, the representational losses would flow from areas around Kansas City and St. Louis. In all three states, many of the current districts that provide Latino and Black communities an opportunity to secure representatives of their choice would no longer be viable or would need to be significantly reconfigured.
  • Many of the areas that would be most impacted by an apportionment shift face deep inequities and new challenges, underscoring their urgent need for full representation. In Missouri, losses in representation would be borne primarily by Black neighborhoods in Kansas City and St. Louis that were formally segregated during the Jim Crow era and that continue to suffer from disinvestment. In Texas, underpopulated districts, which would need to expand to bring in additional adult citizens, include much of historically Black Houston as well as overwhelmingly Latino areas, including colonias near the U.S.–Mexico border that increasingly face infrastructural and climate-related environmental dangers. In Georgia, representational losses would be concentrated in the rapidly diversifying suburbs of Atlanta, where communities of color are taking on historically white political establishments to address urgent political needs around education and policing.

End Notes