Census reports Georgia growth shift, setting up political battle lines

Rural Georgia counties like Meriwether lost population from 2010 to 2020 while metro areas grew, according to new U.S. Census figures. Last fall a sign in downtown Greenville urged people to participate in the once-a-decade head count. Jill Nolin/Georgia Recorder

WASHINGTON — After months of delays, the U.S. Census Bureau on Monday gave states part of the critical data needed to redraw their U.S. House boundaries: an updated tally of how many people live within their borders, and the number of House districts that each state will have for the next decade. 

For six states, the long-awaited census results mean they’ll gain representation in Congress: Fast-growing Texas will add two seats, and five states will each add one seat: Florida (which surpassed New York to become the third-largest state), North Carolina, Colorado, Montana and Oregon.

Because the House must remain at 435 lawmakers, seven states will have fewer representatives, after either losing population over the last 10 years or not growing as quickly as other states. New York, California, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia all will see their federal delegations shrink by one legislator starting in 2023.

Overall, there were 331,449,281 people living in the U.S. on April 1, 2020, an increase of 7.4% since 2010. That’s the slowest growth in a decade since the 1930s, and the second-slowest growth rate in U.S. history.

Georgia’s population growth outpaced the national average, but not by enough to add a 15th Congressional seat. The state added about 1 million people in the past 10 years, from about 9.6 million to 10,711,908 as of last April.

That represents a growth rate of 10.6%, making Georgia the 12th fastest-growing state.

For state officials in charge of redrawing district boundaries every 10 years, Monday’s data release offers certainty on only the beginning of what they need to complete the once-a-decade redistricting process for both Congress and their state districts. 

States also need block-by-block population data in order to draw districts of equal population. That data will be released to states in a less user-friendly format on Aug. 16, with the fuller version to be sent by Sept. 30, according to the Census Bureau.

Preliminary estimates show Georgia’s population growth concentrated in cities and suburbs rather than the more rural areas.

That could be a recipe for more political battles in what is becoming America’s hottest battleground state, said University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock.

“There will be more representation in the urban areas and less in the rural areas, particularly in southwest Georgia, and if you look at any color-coded map of partisanship, what do you see? Where Democrats are are the urban areas, where Republicans are, those are the rural areas,” Bullock said. “Republicans could be hard-pressed to hold onto everything they’ve got, and Democrats might be at an advantage, but what’s going against that is that Republicans are going to be the ones drawing the maps.”

The Republican-controlled state Legislature will be responsible for redrawing state and Congressional district lines. Parties in power always try to draw maps to their advantage, Bullock said. But that could lead to some tough decisions about which seats to try to protect.

“They might try to save 97, 95 seats, as opposed to 103 they have right now, but if you could do that, if that becomes your strategy, you’ll have some awfully unhappy members within your own caucus,” he said.

At least one Georgia Republican Congressman on the federal level, Rep. Jody Hice, is not seeking reelection. Hice plans to challenge Republican Brad Raffensperger as Georgia secretary of state. Another, Rep. Buddy Carter, is publicly mulling a run against Sen. Raphael Warnock. Their absence on the ballot could give Republicans some breathing room to create safer districts for 2022 and beyond.

This redistricting cycle will be the first that Georgia will not have to submit district maps for federal review under the Voting Rights Act, but proposed maps could still spark legal challenges, said Aunna Dennis, executive director of Common Cause Georgia.

“Common Cause Georgia urges the Legislature to use a transparent and accessible process for redistricting,” she said. “New maps may not be subject to the preclearance provisions of the Voting Rights Act, but they will still have to comply with the remaining provisions of the Act. Racially gerrymandered maps can still be appealed to federal courts and can still be held unconstitutional.”

Georgia’s population grew by 10.6% from 2010 to 2020, but its allotment of U.S. House members will remain at 14. U.S. Census Bureau

A delayed count

Typically, the Census Bureau releases apportionment numbers before Dec. 31, but the start of last year’s count came just as the country was shutting down with the first wave of COVID-19, leading to delays and extensions of the count.

The Census Bureau argues its data is reliable, but the delay has upended state redistricting timelines, particularly for those with constitutionally set deadlines for when officials must approve new district maps.

It also has wreaked havoc on the 2022 elections, with prospective candidates uncertain whether they’ll still be living within a district’s boundaries.

Typically, the state-level population data released Monday would have been provided by the end of December, but that process was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The census tallies how many people are living in the U.S. on April 1, and last year, that date fell shortly after states had issued lockdown orders aimed at curbing spread of the coronavirus. That scrambled plans for following up door-to-door with those who did not fill out the form.

“We advertised on pizza boxes, instead of during basketball games,” said Ron Jarmin, acting director of the Census Bureau. “Our partners joined us in reaching people at food banks and in school cafeterias, instead of promoting the census at county fairs.”

Other Americans became harder to reach due to wildfires and hurricanes. The Trump administration also interfered in the counting process, pursuing policies that some feared would make immigrants less likely to respond and cutting the operation short. 

As they announced the new population figures, Census officials defended the accuracy of the counting process, saying the delayed door-to-door follow-ups allowed for more complete responses.

While the final numbers show a slower growth rate than what had been projected, affecting the final allocation of legislative seats, the population numbers for most states were still within 1% of the bureau’s estimates.

Under the new congressional districts, which will go into effect for the 2022 elections, each member of the House will represent an average of 761,000 residents.

The biggest population gains regionally were in the South and the West, with Southern states growing by 10.2% and Western states by 9.2%. The Northeast grew by 4.1%, and Midwestern states showed a 3.1% rise in population.

That followed trends underway since the 1940s, with 84 House seats shifting South and West during that time frame, Census officials said Monday.

Nevada, for example, was among the top five fastest-growing states, with its population of 3.1 million people reflecting a 15% increase compared to 2010.

Six states will have only one legislator in the House. Montana is no longer among that group, with the 94,810 residents it gained proving enough for it to nab the second-to-last seat.

Ross Williams
Before joining the Georgia Recorder, Ross Williams covered local and state government for the Marietta Daily Journal.Williams' reporting took him from City Hall to homeless camps, from the offices of business executives to the living rooms of grieving parents. His work earned recognition from the Georgia Associated Press Media Editors and the Georgia Press Association, including beat reporting, business writing and non-deadline reporting. A native of Cobb County, Williams holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Atlanta's Oglethorpe University and a master’s in journalism from Northwestern University.
Laura Olson
Laura covers the nation's capital as a senior reporter for States Newsroom, a network of nonprofit outlets that includes Georgia Recorder. Her areas of coverage include politics and policy, lobbying, elections, and campaign finance.