Pennsylvania population lag costs state a US House seat

MARC LEVY
The Associated Press
FILE - In this April 14, 2021 file photo people walk along Market Street in Philadelphia. Pennsylvania is expected to get the official word from the U.S. Census that its population growth continues to lag behind the nation's, marking the 10th consecutive decade the Keystone State has lost clout in Congress and presidential contests. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

HARRISBURG — For Pennsylvania, the official word that its population growth continues to lag behind the nation's marks the 10th consecutive decade the Keystone State has lost clout in Congress and presidential contests.

The state has become one of the most important presidential battlegrounds but will have one less electoral vote to offer candidates in the next election — from 20 to 19 — and it will have one less representative in the U.S. House, setting up the usually bare-knuckled political exercise of redrawing district boundaries.

Pennsylvania joins New York and Ohio in losing congressional seats, and California lost a seat for the first time ever, while Texas, Florida and other Sun Belt states gained power in D.C.

The U.S. Census confirmed Pennsylvania's loss of a seat Monday and released figures showing that Pennsylvania's resident population crept to just over 13 million last year — 13,002,700 to be precise — from 12.7 million in 2010, a gain of 2.4% 

That's far behind the nation's population growth of 7.4%. Altogether, the U.S. population rose to 331,449,281, the Census Bureau said, an increase that was the second-slowest ever.

The lagging population growth relative to other states also could mean Pennsylvania will see a reduced share of federal money for Medicaid, social programs and infrastructure. 

That's particularly bad news for the state's growing transportation needs amid a deepening stalemate over financing its highways and public transit.

Gov. Tom Wolf has proposed phasing out Pennsylvania's gasoline tax, the second-highest in the nation, as his Department of Transportation looks to impose tolls on up to nine major bridges to help close a construction and maintenance budget gap that is roughly $8 billion per year and growing.

That gap is more than half the $15 billion that is needed annually to keep Pennsylvania's highways and bridges in good condition and ease major traffic bottlenecks, PennDOT says.

While Pennsylvania will likely remain a valuable jewel for presidential nominees, it will lose some of its shine to Sun Belt states.

Political career in jeopardy? In Congress, Pennsylvania will have 17 U.S. House seats for 18 incumbent U.S. House members when next year's elections roll around. That raises the question of whose district will disappear and whose political career could be upended.

A new map of districts must win approval from the Republican-controlled Legislature and Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, and the districts they draw could have a dramatic effect on the political careers of the state's 18 U.S. House members.

If each of the 18 wants to run for another term in Congress, two of them will have to run against each other.

A new map is necessary before it is time to circulate petitions to get on next year's primary ballot. If Wolf and lawmakers can't agree on one, the state Supreme Court will do it for them.

What makes Republicans nervous is that the state Supreme Court has a 5-2 Democratic majority. The most practical place to eliminate a district is where the population is stagnant: largely Republican areas in northern and western Pennsylvania. 

Redistricting data necessary to draw districts that are equal in population — they include counts of population by race, Hispanic origin, gender and housing at geographic levels as small as neighborhoods — isn't expected to be released by the Census Bureau until late August, at the earliest.

Of particular interest is speculation that a member of Congress — if not several — will run for higher office and thus reduce the number of incumbents lobbying state lawmakers for favorable district lines.

In next year's election, Pennsylvania has two attractive lures for ambitious politicians: an open U.S. Senate seat and a wide open governor's race, with Wolf termed out.

So far, second-term Republican Rep. Dan Meuser of Luzerne County has said he is interested in running for governor, while Democratic Reps. Conor Lamb of Allegheny County and Chrissy Houlahan of Chester County have said they'll consider running for U.S. Senate.

Typically, partisan map drawers strive to give each incumbent of their party a district where they live and have at least a reasonable shot at winning another term.

If an incumbent decides to retire or run for higher office, map drawers become far more likely to eliminate that district, or at least substantially change it to accommodate the wishes of incumbents who plan to run again.

 As for the rest of the country, Colorado, Montana and Oregon all added residents and gained seats. Texas was the biggest winner — the second-most populous state added two congressional seats, while Florida and North Carolina gained one. States losing seats included Illinois, Michigan, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

Red vs. blue: The reshuffling of the congressional map moved seats from blue states to red ones, giving Republicans a clear, immediate advantage. The party will have complete control of drawing the congressional maps in Texas, Florida and North Carolina — states that are adding four seats.

In contrast, though Democrats control the process in Oregon, Democratic lawmakers there have agreed to give Republicans an equal say in redistricting in exchange for a commitment to stop blocking bills. In Democratic Colorado, a nonpartisan commission will draw the lines, meaning the party won’t have total control in a single expanding state’s redistricting.

It's been a bumpy road getting this far. The 2020 census faced a once-in-a-century coronavirus pandemic, wildfires, hurricanes, allegations of political interference with the Trump administration’s failed effort to add a citizenship question, fluctuating deadlines and lawsuits. Division of federal money to the states is also a stake.

The GOP can shape districts to maximize the influence of Republican voters and have a major advantage in upcoming elections — possibly enough to win back control of the U.S. House.

But in the long term, it's not clear the migration is good news for Republicans. Many of the fastest growing states are increasingly competitive political battlegrounds where the new arrivals — including many young people and people of color — could at some point give Democrats an edge.

“What's happening is growth in Sunbelt states that are trending Democratic or will soon trend Democratic,” said William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.

That means Republicans may be limited in how many favorable seats they can draw as Democrats move to their territory.

“It's going to be harder and harder for the Texas Legislature to gerrymander advantageous congressional districts” for Republicans, said William Fulton, director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University in Houston. “Texas hasn't flipped blue yet as a state, but the blue population centers are growing really fast.”

— AP reporters Mike Schneider and Nicholas Riccardi contributed to this report.