There is little doubt that Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, representing parts of Queens and the Bronx, is being treated as a leader of a new Democratic swing to the left. Nor is there much doubt that the media-savvy upset winner in New York’s 14th congressional district combines personal charisma with a knack for policy packaging, as with her “Green New Deal.” But before she’s anointed as representative of a political trend, it’s worth looking closely at how many—or how few—votes she received compared with other members of Congress, including moderate Democrats, and what that says about a little-discussed aspect of how congressional districts are drawn: the role of non-citizen immigrants.
All congressional districts must have roughly equal population counts (about 711,000 people). But that count includes all residents—including those ineligible to vote, not because they haven’t registered but because they aren’t citizens. Since some districts have more such residents than others, it takes far fewer votes to get elected in some places than in others. In general, districts with low populations of potential voters tend to be Democratic; Democrats represent states, such as New York and California, with high immigrant populations. In practice, this means that many Democratic legislators represent fewer eligible voters than Republican legislators. According to an Axios analysis, the foreign-born population exceeds 20 percent in more than 50 Democratic districts, compared with just 11 such Republican districts.
In Ocasio-Cortez’s district, Census data show that 47 percent of residents are foreign-born—compared with 13 percent for the nation overall. That helps explain how the self-styled democratic socialist won her key primary election with so few votes: just 16,898, out of a total of just 29,000 cast. Immigrants are less likely to be citizens—just 44 percent have been naturalized, according to most recent Census data—and Hispanic immigrants are the least likely of all: 75 percent of immigrants from Vietnam have become citizens, for example, compared with just 23 percent of immigrants from Mexico. In New York’s 14th congressional district, 56 percent of residents are Latino.
Those representing less immigrant-heavy districts face a more difficult electoral challenge—that is, they must persuade more voters. Consider Republican minority leader Kevin McCarthy’s 23rd congressional district in California, representing Bakersfield and the southern San Joaquin Valley. Just 13 percent of the 745,000 residents there are foreign-born; in that district’s primary, 118,000 voters went to the polls, and McCarthy received 81,000 votes. Compare those figures with Ocasio-Cortez’s above.
This is not just a Democrat versus Republican difference. Compare Ocasio-Cortez’s district with that of central Ohio Democratic congressman Tim Ryan, an outspoken opponent of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi who hopes to push the Democratic Party back toward the political center. In Ryan’s district, just 3 percent of residents are foreign-born. He received 54,000 of 63,000 primary votes.
Pelosi was right, then, when she said that Ocasio-Cortez’s victory should not be viewed as “something larger” than the results in a single district—in fact, compared with other districts, it’s considerably smaller. The simple fact is that Democratic members of Congress from immigrant-heavy states represent fewer voters than most Republicans and their fellow Democrats from less immigrant-heavy states. And the Democratic Party represents more districts with lower numbers of eligible voters.
It’s not surprising, then, that the Trump administration wants the Census Bureau to inquire about citizenship status, because doing so will highlight how many congressional districts have relatively few voters. Nor is it surprising that Democratic elected officials have gone to court to try to stop the Census from including that question. When it comes to voters, it turns out that some districts are more equal than others—and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez represents one of them.
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