RI is now within 157 residents of losing a US House seat, expert warns

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Rhode Island is now just 157 residents away from losing one of its two seats in the U.S. House, which would give the state a single vote there for the first time since George Washington was president, according to an analysis of newly released population data.

Kimball Brace, the reapportionment expert who has been involved in drawing legislative and congressional districts in Rhode Island since the early 1980s, ran the numbers Wednesday after the U.S. Census Bureau announced Rhode Island had added about 2,000 residents between July 2016 and July 2017.

The population figures are closely watched as a sign of what will happen when congressional maps are redrawn after the 2020 Census. 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 current share of the national population.

“While keeping [Rhode Island’s] two congressional districts with the 2017 numbers, the new data shows the state is now only 157 people away from dropping to a single district state,” Brace, president of the firm Election Data Services, wrote in an analysis.

“Rhode Island was 52,481 people away from losing its second seat after the 2010 Census, and the number “has steadily decreased over the decade so far,” Brace wrote. “At this rate, they will be down to just one district in the next several years,” he added.

Rhode Island has had at least two U.S. House seats since the ratification of the Constitution, and even had three for a short time in the early 20th century. But with the state’s population now largely stagnant as southern and western states grow quickly, its ability to hold onto that second seat is slipping.

If Rhode Island loses 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.

Brace cautioned that his forecast is “very preliminary and subject to change.”

“Having worked with Census data and estimates since the 1970s, it is important to remember that major events like Katrina and the 2008 recession each changed population growth patterns and that impacted and changed the next apportionment,” Brace said.

“The change in [presidential] administration and the lack of a Census director could have a profound impact on how well the 2020 Census is conducted, and therefore the counts that are available for reapportionment,” he said, adding: “History can also be a guide, recalling that the 1920 reapportionment was cancelled because the numbers showed for the first time that more people resided in urban areas than rural areas.”

The possibility of a single district already has Rhode Island political watchers buzzing about a potential primary pitting incumbent Democratic Congressmen Jim Langevin and David Cicilline against each other in 2022. The pair have mostly dodged questions about what would happen in such a scenario, saying it’s a hypothetical.

Langevin, 53, has held his 2nd District seat in the western half of the state since 2001. Cicilline, 56, has held his 1st District seat since 2011. The last time Republicans won a U.S. House race in Rhode Island was 1992, when Ronald Machtley won his final re-election bid for the seat now held by Cicilline. However, an analysis after last year’s election showed the GOP making some inroads in Langevin’s district.

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook