Census data expected to show Michigan losing another U.S. House seat

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Washington — The Census Bureau is expected to soon confirm what has been forecast for years — that Michigan is poised to lose another seat in Congress due to population decline, going from 14 to 13 seats in the U.S. House.

By April 30, the bureau is poised to release the first round of data from the 2020 Census on the populations of each state, revealing the apportionment calculation that determines which states gain or lose House seats. 

The loss of a House seat for Michigan would also mean one less Electoral College vote for the state in presidential elections, going from 16 to 15 votes. 

Michigan has been bleeding political clout in the U.S. House for decades and is on track to lose a seat again because its population has grown slowly compared with other states.

That projection is based on the July 2020 population estimate from the Census Bureau for Michigan at 9.9 million, which was released in December. The bureau's population estimates consider births, deaths and immigration. 

"It doesn’t look like Michigan is close to potentially keeping the seat," said Kimball Brace, president of the Election Data Services firm in Virginia, which analyzes the Census data.

"You'd have to gain another 278,000 people to keep 14 seats, as opposed to 13."

The Constitution requires that seats in the U.S. House of Representatives be reapportioned among the states every 10 years according to the results of the census. 

Michigan peaked with 19 representatives in the U.S. House in the 1960s and '70s but since 1970 has been on a "deep slide," Brace noted.

"That's kind of a continuation of what we're seeing elsewhere in the country, which is basically since World War II, you're seeing loss of populations in the Northeast and the upper Midwest," Brace said. 

The population is generally moving South and to the West, contributing to gains in Texas and Florida, for example, which are among the states expected to gain seats in the House after the 2020 Census, along with Arizona, Colorado, Montana, Oregon and North Carolina. 

"What drove that was the invention of a thing called air conditioning. It made Florida and southern Texas livable for people to move to, and a lot of people did," Brace said. "They left the snows of Detroit and everything else and said, 'The heck with this. I'm going to where it's warm.'"

At least 330 million people lived in the United States as of April, according to a Census Bureau estimate.

New maps for both the U.S. House and for state legislative districts will be redrawn this year following the next, more detailed round of Census Bureau data, whose release has been delayed until August. That tranche will include county-level and other demographic information. 

It's unclear which Michigan district will be dissolved but after each of the 2000 and 2010 censuses, the House seats lost were in Southeast Michigan, forcing political battles each time in a new consolidated district.

Democratic U.S. Reps. Hansen Clarke of Detroit and Gary Peters of Bloomfield Township faced off in 2012, and Democratic U.S. Reps. John Dingell of Dearborn and Lynn Rivers of Ann Arbor battled in 2002.

That was when Republican lawmakers were in charge of the last two redistricting cycles.

This decade, in an effort to end gerrymandering, redrawing the political lines in Michigan will fall to a new 13-member independent redistricting commission that's just hired staff and consultants, including Brace to help draw the technical maps. 

"You've got to take a look at where was the shift of population in the state? That's some of the stuff that, as we get going with the commission, we'll start analyzing and looking at," Brace said. 

"Where is the shift within the state occurring in this last decade? Is it into the Thumb or away from the Thumb? Or the U.P.? That will kind of give us some first clues on what is possible in terms of drawing, certainly."

This week, the commission filed a lawsuit asking the Michigan Supreme Court for more time for finalizing the redrawn maps. The commission is seeking to extend the Nov. 1 deadline under the state Constitution for approving the new maps to account for the delay in the second tranche of census data and still allow 45 days for public comment.

"The process this year is radically different than the past," said John Chamberlin, professor emeritus of political science and public policy at the University of Michigan Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy. 

"The public in the past was never asked what they wanted districts to look like. They read about them in the paper the day after they happened. They were done in secret behind closed doors," Chamberlin said.

"This time it's going to be a grand experiment. But it seems to me, it can't help but be better than it was in the past."

Unlike the past, those redrawing the lines won't be political pros but ordinary citizens "who don’t have a lot of political fingerprints," he said. 

Under the new criteria, districts in Michigan are supposed to be more "geographically compact and contiguous," and the maps shall not provide "disproportionate advantage" to political parties or candidates. 

Chamberlin suggested the delay in the arrival of the Census Bureau's data might give the new commission some breathing room, though the uncertainty has sent political candidates and clerks scrambling.

"This is a brand new process. The state hasn't been through it before, and the commissioners haven't been through it before," he said. "It may be that having the data delayed a little bit will allow them to catch up and talk about, in theory, what are they doing before in practice, they have to do it."

The loss of a seat in Congress though, means Michigan will have one fewer votes when it comes to federal resources and policies that benefit the state, Chamberlin noted. It also means one less voice on House committees that influence what makes it into legislation. And Michigan isn't alone in this. 

"Neighboring states are also losing seats," he said, offering Ohio and Minnesota as examples. "So not only do we have one fewer member of Congress advocating for Michigan, we're going to have about seven fewer members advocating for Great Lakes issues."