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House Seat Apportionment: Media Gets It Wrong on Partisan Impact

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December 21st update. The final numbers are in and there have been slight changes, none of which change my key point about many pundits doing simplistic bean-counting and missing elements of the broader story. The changes were: 1) "red states" earned one more seat for a total gain of seven, as Texas gained four seats in stead of three; 2) "blue states" lost one more seat for a total loss of five seats, as New York lost two seats instead of one; 3) swing states were left with losing two seats, with Missouri now losing a seat, but Florida gaining two instead of one. The end result is an overall gain for Republicans of six seats -- but that gain that will be completely offset if population changes in Nevada indeed push it out of battleground status into the Democratic column.

On Tuesday, December 21, the U.S. Census will release the official population numbers for states from its count earlier this year. The most immediate impact will be on apportionment of seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. Unlike the U.S. Senate, the House reflects population differences among states, and the 435 seats in the House will be divvied out to states based on relative population: every state gets at least one seat, and states get additional seats in proportion to their numbers of people.

Already some journalists and half-informed pundits are rushing to political judgment about the partisan impact of these shifts. Nearly all states are growing (indeed, every single state grew in population in the 1990s), but the Sunbelt is growing faster. Because most Sunbelt states currently are reliably Republican in presidential races, the simplistic interpretation of the 2012 shift in House seats is that Republicans will gain an electoral vote advantage.

But the reality is that population shifts not only impact numbers of House seats: they can impact the partisan leanings of states. All it takes is population changes causing one state to shift toward Democrats to undo all the huffing and puffing about electoral vote gains and losses.

It turns out this is exactly the case with the current numbers. First, here are the breakdown of which states are currently projected to gain and lose House seats, grouped by their definition in presidential contests (and with the caveat that the final numbers won't be known for sure until December 21st):

A net of six electoral votes gained in Republican "red" states: Red presidential states gain seven electoral votes from three new House seats projected in Texas and one new seat in Arizona, Georgia, South Carolina and Utah. Red states lose one electoral vote Louisiana's loss of a House seat.

A net of four electoral votes lost in Democratic "blue" states: Blue presidential states lose five electoral votes by losses of one House seat each in Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey and New York, but gain a seat with Washington State's projected new House seat.

A net of two electoral votes lost in swing states: Swing states lose four electoral votes from Ohio's projected loss of two seats and the loss of one seat in Iowa and Pennsylvania, but gain two votes from gains of one seat in Florida and Nevada.

These numbers led Charles Babington of the Associated Press to write an article entitled "New Census count may complicate Obama 2012 Bid," in which Republican spokesman Doug Heye comments, "The way the maps have shifted have made Obama's route to success much more difficult."

Of course a loss of six electoral votes in itself isn't necessarily problematic for Barack Obama, given that he won his 2008 election by 192 electoral votes. But more fundamentally, the analysts miss a basic point: shifts in population can change the partisan definition of states. As one example, Nevada has moved steadily from being a strongly Republican state (Ronald Reagan won by 34% there in 1984) in the direction of Democrats. FairVote's analysis of state partisanship shows a shift of 2% to 3% toward Democrats in each election in 2000, 2004 and 2008. In 2008 Barack Obama defeated John McCain by 12.4% in Nevada, more than 5% ahead of his national average, and in 2010 Senate majority leader Harry Reid earned a surprisingly comfortable 5.6% win in his re-election bid.

It's easy to argue, then, that Nevada's population growth in the 2000s has not only earned it a new House seat, but moved it from a state leaning Republican to a state that looks to becoming a reliably blue state. If so, Nevada's six electoral votes in themselves completely wipe out the six votes margin gained by Republicans from reapportionment. Throw in potential shifts toward Democrats due to the partisan leanings of new voters in other states like Colorado, and one could argue that population trends are helping Democrats more than Republicans.

But all this number-crunching speaks to the foolish nature of our current state-by-state method of electing the president. Presidential elections should not come down to deciphering the impact of Census counts. Rather, it should come down to real Americans coming together every four years to select their president. Every vote should count the same. The candidate with the most votes should win.

The big story that the media is largely missing is that every year we are growing closer to that straightforward goal: elections determined by the winner of the national popular vote in all 50 states (and D.C.). The National Popular Vote plan for president now has 28% of the electoral votes necessary to trigger its implementation in our next presidential race (that's because to become active, the agreement requires states adopting it to collectively have a majority of the Electoral College, currently 270 electoral votes). With increasingly bipartisan support in legislatures, the National Popular vote plan shows every promise of making big headway in the next couple years -- thereby transforming the 2016 election, and still potentially the 2012 election.

I for one can't wait to have elections for president where, come November, my friends and neighbors here in Maryland are just as important to the presidential campaigns as voters in swing states like Pennsylvania. "Every vote equal" -- that's a concept we can live with when it comes to electing our highest office.

Finally, two postscript items:

• Charles Babington in his Associated Press article suggests that there is a link between which party hold the governorship and which party has an edge in presidential races in that state. In fact, there seems to be no such link. As one example, in 2009 we reported in our innovative analysis series that of the 13 states that lean most strongly toward Republicans in presidential races and the 10 states that lean most strongly toward Democrats in presidential races (all of which went safely to their respective parties in the 2000, 2004 and 2008 elections), more than half had governors in 2009 from the party that always lost the presidential election.

• Another "big" story being missed in most reporting on reapportionment is that having 435 House seats is a completely arbitrary fact based solely on the number of House seats not changing since 1910 except for a fleeting addition of two seats when Alaska and Hawaii joined the union. Up until 1910, the number of House seats changed every decade, growing by 41 seats from 1900 to 1910. Since then, our nation's population has more than tripled, as have average House district populations, but suggesting it's time for more House seats can trigger incredulous looks. Perhaps states losing seats despite gaining population - and perhaps Montana again only to have one House seat despite nearly a million people - will finally trigger calm discussion (as suggested in admirable legislation from Congressman Alcee Hastings) of the question of whether it's time to add House seats after a century of inertia.

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