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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_ykzmx5y 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_6u9h2ci 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_dpjr03i 3 Ari Berman, “Trump’s Stealth Plan to Preserve White Elect­oral Power,” Mother Jones, Janu­ary/Febru­ary 2020, https://www.mother­­ics/2020/01/citizen­ship-trump-census- 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_jj6l58p 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_o03w0ff 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