RI has had at least two seats in the US House of Representatives since 1792, following the nation’s first census of 1790. Due to population shifts expected in the upcoming census of 2020, RI is widely anticipated to lose one. Because the US Constitution provides that each state must have at least one seat, RI would be reduced to the minimum. The change would take effect with the 2022 election.
The loss raises the prospect of a primary fight, if both seek reelection in 2022, between Democrats James Langevin, serving RI’s 2nd district since 2001, and David Cicilline, serving RI’s 1st district since 2011. (Neither responded by press time to invitations for comment.)
Analysts have been predicting the loss of one of the two seats for more than a decade; RI narrowly escaped it in the 2010 census. In March 2018, state Rep. Carlos Tobon, who represents District 58 covering Pawtucket, made national news by proposing that RI pay families of three or more $10,000 to move to the state, controversially limiting eligibility to those with household incomes over $100,000, the intention being to balance the cash payments with increased tax revenue that would have been paid to another state had the family not relocated. Tobon said that his goal was to bring 30,000 more people into RI. Despite considerable ridicule directed at Tobon, other places throughout the country do offer cash for relocation, usually due to labor shortages; Vermont, with a very low unemployment rate of 2.8% as of March 2018, will pay people up to $10,000 to relocate there.
The generally recognized authority on Congressional apportionment statistics, Kimball Brace, president of consulting firm Election Data Services, in December 2018 published estimates of the effect of the 2020 census on reapportionment. Brace predicts a gain of a seat each for Arizona, Colorado, Montana, North Carolina and Oregon; a gain of two seats for Florida; and a gain of three seats for Texas. He predicts a loss of a seat for Alabama, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and West Virginia; a loss of one seat for either California or Minnesota; and a loss of two seats for New York. Montana would be the flip side of Rhode Island, increasing from the minimum of one seat to two.
Because the number of votes in the Electoral College that decides the presidency and vice-presidency of the United States is based on the sum of members of the Senate (always two per state) and the House, RI would be reduced from four to the minimum three electoral votes beginning with the 2024 election. On a national basis, Brace found that the result of no recent presidential election would have changed using the expected 2020 numbers, but the Electoral College would have been more favorable for Republicans: Trump in 2016 would have had two more electoral votes, Obama in 2012 would have had five fewer and – most strikingly – Bush in 2000 would have had 20 more.
“The change in administration, the lack of a census director, shortness of funds appropriated to the bureau, and how well individual states conduct their own Complete Count campaigns could have a profound impact on how well the 2020 census is conducted, and therefore the counts that are available for apportionment,” Brace wrote. Major events have affected reapportionment, such as Hurricane Katrina in 2005 driving people to leave Louisiana, unexpectedly costing it a seat.
Governor Gina Raimondo issued an executive order on December 28, 2018, establishing a RI Complete Count Committee, the mechanism recommended by the National Conference of State Legislatures to promote census participation.
The State of Rhode Island and the cities of Providence and Central Falls are plaintiffs in a federal court case against the US Department of Commerce and its Census Bureau brought by 14 cities and counties, 18 states, the District of Columbia and the US Conference of Mayors, challenging the decision to ask census respondents whether they are US citizens, a question not asked since 1950. Providence was the site of the only full test of the 2020 census before actual rollout, but the citizenship question was added too late for inclusion in the test, bypassing the usual careful evaluation process, a point raised in the lawsuit. The “Enumeration Clause” of the Constitution explicitly requires that the “whole number of persons” be counted regardless of citizenship or legal status, and the plaintiffs argue that the real reason for the citizenship question is to scare minorities, especially Latino and Hispanic minorities even if they are legal immigrants, away from answering the census, thereby undercounting them. In January 2019, a federal judge in New York ruled that US Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross had substantially lied to the court about how and why the citizenship question had been added to the census and enjoined its use. Another federal judge in Maryland ruled similarly, and a federal judge in California ruled that the addition of the citizenship question, regardless of the process used to decide to include it, was an unconstitutional violation of the Enumeration Clause. On an emergency basis, the US Supreme Court agreed to consider direct appeals, bypassing the usual Circuit Courts, because the census questions need to be finalized no later than June 2019; oral argument is scheduled for April 23.
The Constitution requires a census every 10 years so that the number of seats in the House of Representatives can be apportioned fairly among the states, but historically the process has usually been chaotic. When the Constitution went into effect in 1789, each House member represented about 35,000 constituents; today that number averages 720,000.
Until 1913, the House simply got bigger as population increased and more states were admitted to the union, and the membership had grown to 435; that year, on the basis of the 1910 census, RI increased its (then) two seats to three. A political crisis ensued following the 1920 census, which, using the traditional process, would have increased the size of the House to 483, a number deemed too large for the body to function effectively (as well as exceeding the physical seating capacity of the chamber), leading to a failure to adopt any reapportionment despite the constitutional mandate to do so. The House continued using the 1913 apportionment until 1929, when in anticipation of the 1930 census it was decided to fix the number of seats at the then-current 435 and reallocate them among the states; as a result, in 1933 RI went back down to two seats where it has remained ever since.
Over time, four different and complicated methods of rounding to account for allocating whole numbers of seats among fractions of population have been employed. In 1941, the law was changed to prevent a recurrence of the 1920 crisis, providing for automatic reapportionment following the census, specifying the rounding method, and this law remains in force today.
Until the census is concluded, it’s impossible to be certain what it will mean to RI or how many new Rhode Islanders it would take to hold onto our representative seats. But if you do have any relatives thinking of moving here, it’s likely every head will count.