Race, Redistricting, and the 2020 Census: Will the Majority Tolerate Minority Rule Much Longer?Roundup
tags: democracy, census, Redistricting
Heather Cox Richardson is a Professor of History at Boston College. This post originally appeared at her Substack, Letters from an American.
Last week, the Census Bureau released information about the 2020 census, designed to enable states to start the process of drawing new lines for their congressional districts, a process known as redistricting.
Because of that very limited intent for this particular information dump, the picture the material gives is a very specific one. The specificity of that information echoes the political history that in the 1920s began to skew our Congress to give rural white voters disproportionate power. It also reinforces a vision of America divided by race: precisely the vision that former president Trump and his supporters want Americans to believe.
The U.S. Constitution requires that the government count the number of people in the country every ten years so that lawmakers can divide up the representation in Congress, which is apportioned according to population in the House of Representatives. (The Senate is by state: each state gets two senators.)
This matters not just for the relative weight of voices in lawmaking in the House, but also because of our Electoral College. The Electoral College is how we elect the U.S. president. Each state gets the number of electors that is equal to the number of senators and representatives combined. So, if your state has 10 representatives and 2 senators, it would have 12 presidential electors.
Censuses are never 100% accurate. It’s hard to count people, especially if they don’t want to be counted. Censuses also are inherently political, since a corrupt president will not want an accurate count: they will want areas that support their party to be overcounted, while areas that support the opposite party to be undercounted.
The 1890 census is a famous example of both of these problems. Indigenous Americans who were eager to avoid the observance of the federal government out of concern for their lives moved around to avoid being counted. The process itself was notoriously corrupt because, in 1889 and 1890, the Republican Party had forced the admission of six new western states—North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Washington, Idaho, and Wyoming—that supported the Republicans, and had insisted that the new census would show enough people there to warrant statehood. So they were eager to find lots and lots of people in those new states but very few in the populous territories of Arizona and New Mexico, which they knew would vote Democratic. (I would love to write a whole post about the 1890 census, but I will spare you.)
Today, because of the pandemic, the results of the 2020 census have been delayed, and states are already behind in their schedules to redistrict for the upcoming 2022 election. (I know, I know, but it really is right over the horizon. Some states are already thinking about moving their primary elections because there’s not enough time to redistrict before them.) So last week, the Census Bureau released the information states need to begin that process. It released its record of the number of people living in each state and U.S. territory.
But in addition to needing to know the actual numbers of the count, state lawmakers need to know the racial makeup of their states, since there are federal rules about making sure minority votes aren’t silenced in redistricting by, for example, splitting a minority vote into small enough groups among districts that minorities essentially don’t have a voice (this is called “cracking”), or concentrating members of one group into a single district, so they are underrepresented at the state level (this is called “packing”).
So the material that came out last week was not the entire information from the census; it was just the material states need for redistricting.