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AUSTIN - Texas could become an even larger player in future presidential contests based on new projections that show the Lone Star State's population growing big enough to receive as many as 41 electoral college votes - three more than it has now.

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Jeremy Wallace
, Houston Chronicle

AUSTIN - Texas could become an even larger player in future presidential contests based on new projections that show the Lone Star State's population growing big enough to receive as many as 41 electoral college votes - three more than it has now.

Texas has added nearly 3.2 million people since the last federal census, in 2010, according to population estimates. If the trend continues, the state stands to gain as many as three more seats in Congress while states with dwindling populations - such as Illinois - would lose seats.

More congressional seats means more electoral votes in presidential elections.

With as many as 41 electoral votes, Texas would wield more clout than ever before in presidential elections. If the extra votes had been in place the last decade, for example, Texas would have increased President Donald Trump's 2016 margin of victory in the Electoral College and trimmed President Barack Obama's 2012 margin over Mitt Romney.

The projections for the additional congressional seats come from Election Data Services, a political consulting firm that relied on data released by the U.S. Census Bureau on Dec. 20.

As large states like California and New York have tended to back Democrats in presidential elections, Texas has become an essential state for Republican candidates to boost their totals. Texas has voted Republican in every presidential election since Ronald Reagan defeated incumbent Jimmy Carter in 1980. For all intents and purposes, a Republican cannot win the White House without Texas' haul of electoral votes.

Texas would still trail California, with 55 electoral votes, as a coveted Election Day prize.

But over the last three decades, the Lone Star State has closed the gap. California has added just one electoral vote since 1990; Texas will have added 10 to 11 by 2020.

"It would take a couple of more decades like this, but Texas is catching up," said Kimball Brace, president of Election Data Services, a political consulting firm that specializes in redistricting data analysis.

The gains will also surely set off a battle over where those new congressional seats get located.

Starting in 2021, the Texas Legislature would determine which parts of the state get the new seats. Although both Harris County and the Rio Grande Valley have seen big population gains, it doesn't mean those areas will necessarily get the new seats, said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston.

That's because of how political Texas has been in drawing congressional district lines over the decades, whatever party has been in charge. The party in power has generally pushed the partisan gerrymandering to its limits and forced the courts to step in.

In 1991, a federal court voided primary elections in 13 districts and imposed a court-drawn map after then-majority Democrats tried to use redistricting to hurt GOP numbers. In 2003, the tables turned and it was Republicans that drew a map in their favor that resulted in Democrats hiding out in New Mexico and then Oklahoma in a failed effort to keep the maps from becoming law.

And even now, the state has been operating under temporary court-ordered maps drawn for the 2012 elections and adopted by the Legislature in 2013 that are still part of legal challenges that have yet to be fully resolved.

Texas's messy history of drawing congressional district lines is due to one key reason, Rottinghaus said.

"The stakes are so high and both parties know it," he said.

What is certain is that the increase in electoral votes won't be in place until the 2024 presidential election cycle, when Trump conceivably could be finishing a second term. The census won't be finished until after the 2020 presidential election is decided.

In 2017 alone, Texas had the largest population growth of any state in the nation - adding 399,734 people, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Florida was second with 327,811 people added, and California was third with 240,177 new residents.

While Texas is on pace to add at least two seats in Congress and possibly three, northern states stand to lose seats. Illinois, Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Minnesota are all expected to lose seats in Congress if population trends continue until 2020, when the next official Census is conducted.

A big unknown is how the 2017 hurricane season could affect the population numbers.

Data for the population estimates were done in July, before Hurricane Harvey hit Texas and Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico. Those storms could have shifted populations enough to ultimately affect how seats, and thus electoral votes, are distributed.

"It won't be until next year when we see whether population lost in Houston was enough to keep Texas gaining only two districts instead of three," Brace said.

Florida similarly could be affected by the storms, as reports suggest hundreds of thousands of people from Puerto Rico have relocated to Florida since Maria.

After Hurricane Katrina hammered New Orleans in 2005, the ensuing population loss resulted in Louisiana losing a seat in Congress, instead of gaining one as projected before the storm.

If Texas growth continues, whether it has 38 or 39 U.S. House seats may very well hinge on Montana. Brace said Montana has been growing and could pick up a second seat in Congress. If that happens, Texas could be blocked from getting that 39th seat under a formula used by Election Data Services to project future reapportionments.

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