What U.S. State Population Changes Mean for American Elections

The changing populations of U.S. states over the past decade will likely benefit the Republican Party when the Electoral College is recalibrated after the 2020 census, experts say. But beneath the headline numbers are demographic shifts that may tell a different story.

Professor Barry C. Burden, director of the Elections Research Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told Newsweek the changes will not be large but probably give Republicans a "slight boost."

The GOP already has an advantage because of the "disproportionate influence of 'red' states," Burden said: "Republican candidates have won two of the last five presidential elections despite earning fewer popular votes nationwide."

There are 538 electors in the Electoral College. There is one elector for each of the 100 U.S. Senators and the District of Columbia gets three electors.

The distribution of the remaining 435 is determined by the number of congressional districts in each state, which is in turn determined by the population size in each state. As populations rise or fall in states, so does their number of congressional seats, and so too their electors.

"The U.S. population has been drifting toward the south and southwest, areas where Republicans tend to fare better. Electoral College representation is likely to be reduced in states such as New York and Illinois where Democrats tend to dominate," Burden told Newsweek.

Using recently released U.S. Census Bureau data for 2019, CNN analyzed the potential seat-gaining—and -losing—states once the map of congressional districts is updated in 2022 to reflect the population changes.

Texas, a typically red state, is the biggest likely gainer in seats, notching three more to its tally. Florida, which President Donald Trump won in 2016 off the back of two consecutive Democratic wins, is predicted to gain two more seats, according to the analysis.

"In an era of closely divided presidential elections, potentially adding five electoral votes to the Republican total is certainly consequential," Burden said. "It could make up for a loss in a less populated state such as New Hampshire, which is highly competitive but contributes only four electoral votes to the total."

Among the probable losers of seats because of slower-than-average population growth over the past decade are the blue states of California, Illinois, Minnesota, New York and Rhode Island.

But the impact is not entirely clear-cut. Burden highlighted two facts that made the impact of the shifting Electoral College uncertain. "First, which states are most competitive appears to be changing, as states such as Arizona become a battleground and old bellwethers such as Ohio become more predictably supportive of one party," he told Newsweek.

"Second, third parties and independent candidates can affect the results in a few swing states and influence who wins. Although Trump won a number of swing states in 2016 in surprising fashion, he did so without winning an outright majority of the vote due to the presence of non-major party candidates."

John C. Fortier, director of governmental studies at the Bipartisan Policy Center think tank, said the population projections point to Trump-won states gaining six electoral votes. But Fortier cautioned that the population gains in Republican states do not automatically translate into votes for the party.

"Of course, gains in some states are indicative of demographic shifts that may not be favorable to Republicans, so it is not clear that the states that are gaining seats will all stay in the Republican camp," Fortier told Newsweek.

The American population is becoming more ethnically diverse and better educated. The Democratic Party tends to do better with nonwhite and college-educated voters than the Republicans.

Texas, dominated for decades by the Republican Party, is a good example of demographic change.

In recent years there has been much speculation about Texas one day turning blue. It may not happen soon, perhaps not even at all. But the demographic movements are interesting and raise the question about its political makeup in the future.

The Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), a think tank, noted in a piece of analysis last year that nine Hispanics were relocating to Texas for every white person. Moreover, the religiously "unaffiliated" population in the state was growing too.

"While Hispanic populations are not monolithic in their views or voting habits, and they typically vote at lower rates than white residents, the increasing minority population typically leans Democratic," Dr. Natalie Jackson, director of research at the PRRI, wrote in September.

"Plus, Texas Hispanics are starting to vote at higher rates, and the 2018 Senate election featured Democrat Beto O'Rourke finishing only 2.5 percent behind incumbent Republican Sen. Ted Cruz."

Redistricting for the next ten years will begin once the 2020 census is complete. By the end of the next cycle, as state demographics change even more over the coming decade, the electoral map after the 2030 census might look a lot different than it does today.

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Voting literature is placed on the table at the NAACP office in Detroit, Michigan, on October 23, 2019. JEFF KOWALSKY/AFP via Getty Images
What U.S. State Population Changes Mean for American Elections | Politics