PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — For years now, the conventional wisdom among Rhode Island political observers has been that the state is nearly certain to lose one of its two U.S. House seats after the 2020 Census.
But following Monday’s release of new population estimates, the man who draws Rhode Island’s political maps says it’s not a foregone conclusion.
The newly published U.S. Census Bureau estimates show Rhode Island added just over 1,000 residents during the 12 months that ended July 1, bringing its total population to 1,059,361.
That hardly made the Ocean State a fast-growing hub for new arrivals. But it does make the outlook less certain for the post-2020 redistricting process. (Congress has capped the number of House seats at 435 since 1929, so every 10 years the seats are reallocated among the 50 states based on their updated share of the national population.)
Rhode Island has had at least two U.S. House seats since George Washington was president, and even had three seats from 1913 to 1933. But the state’s population is now close to stagnant while southern and western states continue to grow quickly, jeopardizing its claim on two of the 435 seats.
Kimball Brace, the reapportionment expert who has been involved in drawing legislative and congressional districts in Rhode Island since the early 1980s, argued the new numbers show the math is “extremely close.”
“For most of the decade our studies have projected that Rhode Island would lose their second seat by the end of the decade and the new numbers confirm that projection,” Brace wrote in a report issued Monday. “But their margin has gotten tighter with the new data.”
He added, “For the past several years we saw that Rhode Island would lose that second seat by more than 25,000 people. But this new data shows the state missing the seat by only 14,539 residents.”
Brace and other experts continue to say Rhode Island is more likely than not to lose one of its two House seats, leaving one at-large congressman who would represent all 1 million-plus residents in the House. But there will now be some actual suspense surrounding the final outcome.
Michael McDonald, a professor at the University of Florida who specializes in election statistics, said another factor in Rhode Island’s favor is that it is one of the states devoting time and resources to a “complete count” effort aimed at ensuring next year’s Census number captures every resident. A similar effort was credited with saving Massachusetts’ 10th seat in 2000.
“California is investing tens of millions of dollars on a complete count effort because the state knows the importance of population to block grants and representation,” McDonald wrote on Twitter. “Some red state governments are investing zilch because they think Democrats will get under-counted.”
In theory, the loss of a seat would force incumbent Democratic Congressmen David Cicilline and Jim Langevin to face off in a primary for the new at-large seat. However, WPRI 12 political analyst Joe Fleming has previously suggested it’s more likely that one of the two would step aside.
Cicilline and Langevin, for their part, have studiously refused to offer forthright answers when pressed about what they would do if one of their two seats disappears.
If Rhode Island does lose its second seat, it would join the group of seven small states that already have just one at-large U.S. House member, elected by the entire state electorate: Alaska, Delaware, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming. Those states send three lawmakers to Washington: two to the U.S. Senate and one to the U.S. House.
Ted Nesi (email@example.com) is WPRI 12’s politics and business editor and a Target 12 investigative reporter. He is a weekly panelist on Newsmakers and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook