PROVIDENCE – The 2020 Census looms large for Rhode Island, with experts long predicting it to result in the state losing one of its two U.S. House seats.
But that may not be a done deal, according to Kimball Brace, a reapportionment expert involved in drawing Rhode Island’s congressional maps for several decades.
Brace’s latest projections, published in a report on Monday, show that the margin by which Rhode Island could lose its second congressional seat following the post-2020 reapportionment is much closer than anticipated. Brace’s findings come in part from new population estimates released by the U.S. Census Bureau, which put the state at 1,059,361 people as of July 2019.
The number of seats in the U.S. House has been set at 435 since 1929, with allotments among the 50 states adjusted every 10 years based on updated census numbers. Rhode Island has not lost a representative since 1930, when its congressional delegation was cut from three to two seats.
Projections that the Ocean State will lose a seat in the 2022 reallocation are a function of the state’s relatively stagnant population compared to growth in other states.
“For the past several years, we saw that Rhode Island would lose that second seat by more than 25,000 people,” Brace stated in the report. “But this new data shows the state missing the seat by only 14,539 residents.”
The political implications of losing a House seat, leaving one congressional representative for the entire state, are not good, said Wendy Schiller, professor and chair of the political science department at Brown University.
“R.I. is a diverse state and the more voices that you have to represent the state the better off we are,” Schiller said.
Perhaps even more problematic in her view was the potential primary showdown between sitting Democratic congressmen David M. Cicilline and James R. Langevin, at least one of whom would be out of a job if the state loses a congressional seat. Schiller fears a contentious primary battle between the two would leave the winner vulnerable against a Republican challenger in the general election.
“What you end up with is more people fighting over fewer seats and for a small state that’s not a good thing,” Schiller said.
She agreed with Brace’s conclusion that losing a congressional seat was still a likely outcome for Rhode Island if based solely on population. The only “longshot” scenario by which the state might keep its current delegation numbers would be if Cicilline became U.S. House speaker, if House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., steps down, she said.
Accuracy of the 2020 Census also remains a factor in the state’s ability to hang on to its second House seat. While the U.S. Supreme Court threw out the controversial citizenship question many feared would deter both legal and undocumented immigrants from responding, potential undercounts remain a threat, according to the report. Many states, Rhode Island included, have appropriated funds for education and inclusion of “hard to count” residents in efforts to ensure a more accurate count.
Rhode Island is one of nine states projected to lose a seat after the 2020 Census, according to the report. Others are California, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
Nancy Lavin is a PBN staff writer. Contact her at Lavin@pbn.com.
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