Why your state might lose or gain clout in Congress after the census is released

Rhode Island is likely to draw the short straw in the once-a-decade reshuffling of U.S. House seats

Updated April 28 at 7:28 p.m.Originally published April 14, 2021

Clarification: The projections in this story were based on preliminary population estimates from the Census Bureau. In the actual enumeration, Rhode Island’s population was large enough to maintain its second seat.

Rhode Island, now the most overrepresented state in the U.S. House, is likely about to become the most underrepresented.

In the next two weeks, the government will release state populations from the 2020 Census, and estimates suggest Rhode Islanders will lose one of their two seats in the chamber.

This is congressional reapportionment, the once-a-decade reshuffling of the 435 House seats among the states to adjust for population changes. Some states will gain clout, while others will lose. Even after the changes, House members from some states will still represent a starkly different number of people than others.

To understand why there’s so much inequality in the population-based chamber, imagine a country like the United States but much smaller. It has only two states, Bluetah, population 60, and Yelloware, population 20.

Bluetah has exactly three times the population of Yelloware, so when the country apportions its four-seat legislature, Bluetah gets three seats and Yelloware gets one. Each elected legislator represents 20 people, and every person enjoys equal representation.

A decade passes and the country conducts a census to see how its population has changed. Bluetah’s population hasn’t grown at all, but Yelloware’s has doubled from 20 to 40.

Now, for each legislator to continue representing an equal number of people, Bluetah would have to have 2.4 representatives, while Yelloware would have to have 1.6.

Because the number of lawmakers must remain whole, it is impossible to divvy up their legislative seats so that each one represents the same number of constituents.

It would be more evenly balanced to apportion the final seat to Yelloware than to Bluetah. But the residents of Bluetah, who are now each underrepresented in the legislature in comparison to their neighbors in Yelloware, would be justified in feeling vexed.

Back in reality, the state that stands to lose out the most after reapportionment is Rhode Island. In 2010, Rhode Island’s population was just big enough to garner two House seats. Because it eked out the second seat, its residents ended up being the most represented in the chamber — one representative for about 530,000 Rhode Islanders.

If population projections pan out, Rhode Island will end up with only one seat after the coming reapportionment, and its lone delegate will represent more than one million constituents. (The average among all states will be about 750,000 after this year’s reapportionment.)

In one scenario, Montana could swap places with Rhode Island, going from one to two seats, meaning Montanans will go from least-represented to most-represented.

Early in the nation’s history, the number of House seats grew with the population. But since 1913, except for a temporary increase when Alaska and Hawaii became states, the number of representatives has remained steady at 435.

The distribution must be rejiggered after every census to account for expansion or shrinkage of each state relative to the others. Even states that grow in population may still lose seats if their growth is less robust than that of other states.

[What do you want to know about the 2020 Census?]

The smaller the state, the bigger the impact if there is a shift. Going from one to two seats, as Montana may do, “doubles the impact of people who will vote for various kinds of bills,” said Brookings Institution demographer William Frey.

Montana’s population is right on the bubble, so its second seat is not assured. Likewise, Rhode Island could conceivably keep its second seat, but it is not likely, based on a Washington Post analysis of census data.

“I’ve kidded with [Rhode Island officials] that … they should have taken a billboard in Montana saying, ‘Don’t answer the census,’ ” said Kimball Brace, president of Election Data Services, a political consulting firm specializing in redistricting, election administration, and the analysis and presentation of census and political data.

Rhode Islanders are already steeling themselves for the loss of half of their congressional delegation.

“It’s going to affect our ability to advocate with the federal government, at a time when we have a very energetic federal government,” said Jorge Elorza, the mayor of Providence, adding the state needs money for aging roads and bridges.

A pedestrian passes posters encouraging participation in the 2020 Census last April.
A pedestrian passes posters encouraging participation in the 2020 Census last April. (Ted S. Warren/AP)

The coronavirus pandemic, natural disasters, and the Trump administration’s efforts to change the survey and how it is used caused last year’s decennial count to be the most chaotic in recent memory. This potentially affected the accuracy of the data in all states, but particularly those with high immigrant populations.

Rhode Island did what it could to persuade residents to respond, but population trends were against them. By 2018, according to the Census Bureau’s annual estimates, Rhode Island’s population was already too small to warrant a second seat.

“It’s an imperfect system,” Elorza said. “In terms of the fairness of it, we know that the line has to be drawn somewhere. We’ve been very close to that line, and we made a strong push for people to fill out the form. We actively and vocally campaigned on trying to save one of these congressional seats.”

There have been discussions in modern times about increasing the size of the House, which would not resolve the imbalance but would help even it out. But they have been largely theoretical.

Academics have proposed changes for decades, said census historian Margo Anderson. The idea has not gained traction, she said, because just a few small states bear the brunt of the inequity at any given time.

There have also been calls to break up states into units with more equal populations. But with state populations constantly changing, it would be impossible to prevent differences from resurfacing.

“Fair representation is a political compromise,” Anderson said. “If you look hard at the apportionment process, there are real problems of fairness, and Americans have looked away from these problems of fairness for a century.”

Besides Rhode Island and Montana, other states are awaiting the state counts with eagerness or dread. Based on current projections, reapportionment is likely to add multiple congressional seats to fast-growing Florida and Texas. States poised to gain a single seat include Arizona, Colorado, Montana, North Carolina and Oregon.

New York may lose multiple seats, and the House delegations that could go down by one include California, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and West Virginia.

It isn’t all bad news for Rhode Island and other small states expected to lose representation in the House. After all, each one still gets two Senate seats, giving them representation in the upper chamber that is entirely out of proportion to their populations. Ask California how that feels.

About this story

The possible scenario for 2020 reapportionment in these graphics was based on Census Bureau population estimates before the release of 2020 Census results. Graphics also used the Census Bureau’s historical reapportionment data and its reapportionment methodology.

Harry Stevens is a graphics reporter at The Washington Post. He was part of a team at The Post that won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting for the series “2C: Beyond the Limit.”
Tara Bahrampour, a staff writer based in Washington, D.C., writes about aging, generations and demography. She has also covered immigration and education and has reported from the Middle East and North Africa, and from the republic of Georgia.
Ted Mellnik explores and analyzes data and maps for graphics, stories and interactives.