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Arizona gains 9th congressional seat, but massive growth isn’t enough for a tenth

If the 2010 census taught Arizona anything, it’s that simple mathematics cannot explain how the 435 congressional seats get divvied up among the states.

Arizona’s population grew by 1.3 million people in the past decade, which garnered the state a ninth seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. But states with far less growth grabbed new seats, one of which Arizona hoped would be its 10th.

Utah, for instance, gained a long-awaited fourth congressional district after registering about 530,000 new residents since the 2000 census, less than half the growth Arizona saw during the same timespan.

South Carolina’s 613,000-person growth spurt earned it a seventh district, while Nevada garnered a fourth seat after growing by 702,000 people. By comparison, using those figures, it appears Arizona should have qualified for two new congressional seats, instead of just one.

Only two states, Florida and Texas, got multiple congressional seats. Florida picked up two seats after growing by about 2.8 million people, while Texas gained a whopping four seats after gaining nearly 4.3 million new residents.

The population figures, released by the U.S. Census Bureau on Dec. 21, may leave a bad taste with Arizonans who had hoped the state’s massive population boom during the past decade would bring two new districts with it. But if Arizonans believe they were robbed of an extra congressional seat, that sentiment is likely running stronger in other states.

Georgia, which grew by 1.5 million since the last census, was the only state to gain a single seat after growing more than Arizona during the past decade.

Likewise, North Carolina added about 1.5 million people to its population. But the Tar Heel State didn’t gain a single seat. And California, the nation’s most populous state, grew by nearly 3.4 million, but gained nothing as well.

Kimball Brace, the president of Election Data Services, a Washington, D.C. consulting firm specializing in redistricting and elections, said Arizona would’ve needed an additional 325,000 people to get a 10th seat.

“What is interesting in Arizona’s instance is the earlier estimates that we’ve done … were looking at you guys in a much closer vein to gaining a second seat,” Brace said. “What’s surprising … is actually how far away you became when these numbers finally came out.”

Tony Sissons, a consultant who worked on Arizona’s 1990 redistricting process, said the census numbers aren’t always a telling sign as to which states will gain seats after each census.

Arizona was a lock for a ninth district after 2004, when its population had grown by about 600,000 since the last census, Sissons said. But by 2008, he said he was certain that Arizona would only gain one new seat.

Figuring out how many people Arizona would have needed to get a 10th seat would require far more data than the U.S. Census Bureau released, intricate analysis and probably a bit of speculation. It would be tempting to say that Arizona would’ve gotten a second new seat if its population had jumped to 7 million, Sissons said, but the same economic forces likely would have brought many new residents to other fast-growing states.

“The answer for any given state depends on the priority assigned to that ‘nth’ seat, times its population, compared with the competition in 49 other states for their next seat,” Sissons said. “Any given state’s success in gaining a seat or losing a seat is highly dependent on what’s happening in the other 49.”

That push and pull between the states is why California failed to gain a new seat for only the second time since statehood. Despite gaining more than 3 million people, Brace said California was closer to losing a seat than gaining one because its population didn’t grow much in relation to other states.

“If they had only 117,000 fewer people, they would’ve lost a seat,” Brace said.

The math lesson continues when the average population of a state’s congressional districts is taken into consideration. With a population of about 6.4 million, Arizona will have an average of 712,000 people per congressional district. In contrast, South Carolina’s new seat gives it an average of 663,000 per district, while Iowa, which lost a House seat, has an average of 763,000 people per district.

“They rounded up to a district and maybe we rounded down to a district,” consultant Alan Maguire, a veteran of the 1980 and 1990 redistricting processes in Arizona, said of states that grew less than Arizona but still gained a congressional seat.

Arizona’s population was about 5.1 million as of the 2000 census, and grew to about 6.1 million by 2006, according to estimates by the Census Bureau. The current total makes Arizona the 16th most populous state, compared to 20th in 2000.

Maguire said Arizona looked well on its way to a ninth seat. But the collapse of the housing market and the subsequent recession turned the flood of new residents into a trickle and likely closed the door on a 10th district several years ago.

“There was some talk a while back that we might have had a second seat added. But with the slowdown in the population, it didn’t happen,” Maguire said. “People’s expectations of 2 to 3 percent population growth the last couple years of the decade were appropriate, until we hit the housing bubble and things really slowed down.”

The population statistics released by the Census Bureau tell Arizonans how many House seats they’ll have in 2012. But county-by-county information and more detailed data that the state’s Independent Redistricting Commission will use for the redistricting process won’t be available until February, Census Bureau Director Robert Groves said in a press conference. Demographic information, such as the number of Hispanic residents in Arizona, will be included in that information, Groves said.

Maguire said the biggest factor in determining Arizona’s new congressional and legislative maps will be the location of the 1.3 million residents the state has gained in the past decade. He said he’s looking at the eastern and western portions of the Valley to make gains when the new lines are drawn. Politicos have long speculated that the ninth congressional district would be anchored on Pinal County as well.

“Historically, eastern Maricopa County has grown faster than any other portion of Maricopa County. … But in the last 10 years there’s been a lot on the west side,” Maguire said. “Mathematically, you can almost put it any place in the urban areas. It’s harder to do that in the rural areas because the population numbers are smaller.”

Arizona is one of eight states that gained congressional districts, along with electoral votes, for the 2012 election. Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, South Carolina, Utah and Washington each gained one seat, while Florida gained two and Texas gained four.

Ten states will lose seats: Iowa, Illinois, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

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