States scramble as low census response rates threaten political power

States scramble as low census response rates threaten political power
© Greg Nash

With just weeks until the Census Bureau faces a critical deadline to finish counting 330 million Americans, cities and states are racing to get through to hard-to-reach communities who risk being left out of the final tally.

At stake are billions of dollars through hundreds of federally administered programs — and political power for the next decade. Some states are so close to the cutoff point at which they would earn or lose a House seat in the apportionment that will come from census figures that just a few thousand missing people could mean a smaller congressional delegation.

“The census has gone from being extremely important to now critically urgent,” said California Secretary of State Alex Padilla (D). “It determines our level of representation in Congress for the next decade and the amount of federal funding coming to each community for the next decade.”

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Demographers and redistricting experts working for both Democratic and Republican groups model population gains based on yearly census data to estimate which states are in line to gain or lose seats every 10 years. Current models suggest Sun Belt states and two fast-growing Western states, Montana and Oregon, are in line to add seats, at the expense of Rust Belt states and California and Alabama.

But those models assume a perfect count. As the Census Bureau prepares to launch an abbreviated in-person count Tuesday, a count that the Trump administration has said will only last through the end of September — ending a month earlier than usual — demographers now say states with the lowest response rates might be at risk of losing out even more.

“Everyone’s kind of taking their apportionment estimates and throwing them out the window right now, because there’s a lot happening on the margins right now that’s making this uncertain,” said Adam Kincaid, executive director of the National Republican Redistricting Trust. “It’s possible that there are some surprises.”

New York, Texas and Florida — all of which lag behind the national response rate — are most at risk of falling short. 

Demographer Kimball Brace, who runs the nonpartisan Election Data Services, projects New York losing a seat based on a declining population. But if the state misses counting somewhere between 61,000 and 237,000 residents — between 0.3 percent and 1 percent of its population — it would lose a second seat.

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Florida is projected to gain two seats and Texas is likely to pick up three seats in the next round of apportionment, according to Brace’s calculations. But those final seats are on a razor’s edge, and undercounts in either state could limit their gains.

“When you start looking at what the response rates are and what they can be, I think we’re in for all sorts of change,” Brace said in an interview. “There is so much up in the air.”

The big winner could turn out to be Minnesota, which has the highest census response rate of any state in the country. Projections initially showed the state losing its eighth seat in Congress by a slim margin of somewhere between 6,700 residents and 22,000 residents. But if Minnesota counts more of its residents than other states, it could save all eight of its members.

States are scrambling to get as many of their residents counted as possible. In some cases, they are spending millions of dollars advertising on television and radio, reaching out to hard-to-access communities through nonprofit groups and mounting their own counting drives. California, the most aggressive state, has spent $180 million trying to boost their response rates.

“We’re spending every ounce of time and energy and resources in getting people to respond,” Padilla said. “We have a lot of work to do, and now we have less time to do it.”

The payoff is huge: One study estimated that a state receives around $2,000 in federal spending over the next decade for every person counted as a resident in the decennial census.

Nationally, 63 percent of American households have responded to the census, through a website or by mail. On a state level, those response rates vary widely: Nearly three-quarters of Minnesotans have responded, but fewer than half of Alaskans have returned their forms.

Midwestern states and well-educated coastal states like Washington and Virginia are near the top of the response rankings. Southern states and more rural states like New Mexico, West Virginia, Maine and Vermont lag near the bottom of the pack.

Within different states, the variations are even wider. They show a stark difference between wealthy, whiter communities that tend to have higher response rates and poorer, often minority and immigrant communities that the Census Bureau has historically had a difficult time reaching and will be most hard-hit by the shortened in-person count. 

In Chicago’s Mt. Greenwood neighborhood, home to an active political machine and older, wealthier city workers and police officers, more than three-quarters of households have returned their census forms. Just a few miles east, in South Chicago neighborhoods represented by Rep. Bobby RushBobby Lee RushCongress should investigate OAS actions in Bolivia Rep. Bobby Rush introduces legislation focused on addressing racism, lack of diversity in the federal government House Democrat introduces bill to replace Confederate monuments nationwide MORE (D-Ill.), just over a quarter of households have responded.

Almost 9 in 10 households in Washington, D.C.’s tiny Friendship Heights neighborhood have responded to the census. Fewer than a quarter of residents in the Edgewood neighborhood, east of Washington Hospital Center, have responded.

Close to 80 percent of residents in the Granada Hills neighborhood of Los Angeles have responded to the census. Response rates around Compton and Watts are well below 50 percent.

Those variations suggest the potential for a big shift in political power away from cities and into suburban and exurban areas. And there are partisan undertones to that shift: Urban cores tend to vote Democratic, while Republicans tend to dominate as the population density drops. Imperfect counts in cities could mean more state legislative and congressional seats shift out of urban cores.

“It feeds in with what the Republicans want to do by cutting off the count early. You see Republican suburbs sitting upwards of 80 to 90 percent response rates right now. Republicans are turning out for the census,” Brace said. “You’ve got a real significant difference going on if indeed the [response rates] don’t come up, and that’s going to significantly change what Congress looks like, what data looks like for the purposes of redistricting.”