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California’s identity, dating back to the Gold Rush, has been based on an idea: This is a place where people want to be. Prospectors. Dust bowl refugees. Immigrants. The Golden State has always lured people seeking work, play and sunshine. 

For most of that history, our population went up and up. And so did our representation in Congress. Now, for the first time in our 171 year history, we’re losing a congressional seat.

What happened? 

There are 435 seats in the House of Representatives and for the last two decades, California has held 53 of them. But then the U.S. Census Bureau released its 2020 population estimate. Population growth is based on three things: birth rate, death rate and migration — people coming and going. All three trends have been moving in the wrong direction in California.

Our birth rate is at a record low. Our death rate is inching up, not just because of COVID but because the state is getting older. And fewer people are moving here. That’s in part due to tighter immigration rules under the Trump administration. But a lot of people are moving to other states like Oregon, Colorado and Texas.

Demographers call that “net domestic migration” and it’s been increasing all decade. To be clear, none of this means that California is shrinking. Between 2010 and 2020, our population increased by more than 2 million, or 6%.

But it just hasn’t grown as fast as the country as a whole — and not nearly as fast as some of our regional rivals. It feels bad to lose a congressional seat. It should.

One fewer vote in the House means less of a voice in federal policymaking, and one fewer vote at the Electoral College, which chooses the president.

It also means less money. 

Federal spending on health care, food aid, affordable housing and more is divvied up based on the census. It’s big money: more than $1.5 trillion across the country. Now California is going to get less of that too.

Going from 53 to 52 also makes life a little more complicated for the California Citizens Redistricting Commission. Unlike in some other states that are getting more congressional seats, California’s political maps are drawn by an independent panel of 14 volunteers, not politicians.

The commission has until the end of this year to draw maps for the 2022 election — including cutting the state into 52 congressional districts instead of 53. Someone, somewhere will lose that seat. 

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Byrhonda Lyons is a national award-winning investigative reporter for CalMatters. She writes and produces compelling stories about California’s court and criminal system. Her reporting has uncovered...

Ben covers housing policy and previously covered California politics and elections. Prior to these roles at CalMatters, he was a contributing writer for CalMatters reporting on the state's economy and...