Here's How The 1st 2020 Census Results Changed Electoral College, House Seats

Apr 26, 2021
Originally published on April 28, 2021 12:04 pm

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Updated April 26, 2021 at 3:56 PM ET

Texas has gained two more votes in Congress and the Electoral College for the next decade, while Colorado, Florida, Montana, North Carolina and Oregon each gained one seat, based on the first set of results from the 2020 census, released Monday. The seven states losing one vote each are California, Illinois, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

The U.S. Census Bureau's acting director, Ron Jarmin, reported the new state population counts at a virtual news conference. The long-awaited announcement has reset the balance of power for the next decade in the House of Representatives and the Electoral College, where each state's share of votes is tied to its census numbers.

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The scramble for the last of the 435 seats for voting members in the House was remarkably close.

"If New York had had 89 more people, they would have received one more seat," said Kristin Koslap during the press conference. Koslap, senior technical expert on 2020 census congressional apportionment in the Census Bureau's Population Division, said instead that last seat went to Minnesota.

The results had been held up for months due to delays caused by the coronavirus pandemic and the Trump administration's interference last year. Under current federal law, these state population numbers were due by the end of 2020. But the bureau had been warning since April 2020 that census results would be delivered later than originally planned. A bipartisan group of lawmakers recently renewed a push in Congress to extend legal reporting deadlines formally for the 2020 count.

Last year's tally was the country's 24th census — a once-a-decade tradition required by the Constitution since 1790 — and it is the ninth count for which the U.S. government has attempted to include every person living in the country in the numbers used for reapportioning seats in Congress. Before the 1940 census, the phrase "excluding Indians not taxed" in the Constitution excluded some American Indians from the apportionment counts.

Here's what else you need to know:

Why did it take so long to get these census results?

COVID-19 forced the agency to postpone in-person counting for months, and the bureau's door knockers also had to contend with hurricanes and wildfires in some parts of the country. As NPR first reported, the census was further disrupted last July when the Trump administration decided to cut short the schedule for gathering census responses and running quality checks on the collected data. Extra time was needed, the bureau argued, to sort through a high volume of duplicate and incomplete responses.

Were people who died from COVID-19 last year counted in the census?

The census was intended to be a snapshot of the country's population as of Census Day (April 1, 2020), so it was not supposed to count U.S. residents who died before that date, according to the bureau's residence criteria. People who died on or after April 1 last year should have been counted.

Is there information about race, ethnicity, age and sex, as well as population numbers for counties, cities, towns and other smaller areas, in these census results?

No, this information will be released with the second set of 2020 census results. This more detailed demographic information is needed for the redrawing of voting districts. It's also used to guide the distribution of an estimated $1.5 trillion a year in federal money for Medicare, Medicaid, education and other public services for local communities.

When will that demographic data be released?

The bureau plans to start releasing this information by Aug. 16. New redistricting data was due to the states by the end of March. But the bureau said it is behind schedule on running quality checks after the Trump administration pressured it to prioritize the new state numbers that former President Donald Trump wanted to alter before leaving office.

The timing may change, however, depending on how two lawsuits turn out. Alabama and Ohio are asking the federal courts to force the bureau to put out this data by the end of July so they can meet their state redistricting deadlines. Alabama's lawsuit is also trying to stop the bureau from adopting a new technique, known as differential privacy, for keeping personal information in anonymized census data confidential. If Alabama wins, the data's release would be delayed by "multiple months" past August, the agency's chief scientist said in a recent court filing.

How accurate are these census numbers?

It will be difficult to say for certain immediately. The bureau's career officials have said the agency has not found anything in the data suggesting the census is not "fit for its constitutional and statutory purposes."

But no U.S. census has been perfect. The pandemic and Trump officials' last-minute changes to the schedule have heightened concerns about how well certain groups were counted, especially historically undercounted groups who are less likely to participate in the census unless they receive in-person visits from door knockers. The Trump administration's failed push for a citizenship question may also have further discouraged households with immigrants and people of color from getting counted.

For the first time, the bureau is releasing quality metrics at the national and state levels on the same day it puts out the first numbers. But census experts say metrics at a more detailed level are needed because the quality of the count can vary greatly from neighborhood to neighborhood.

Researchers with the American Statistical Association are conducting an independent audit of the count's quality, and they are set to release their first report in June. The Census Bureau is conducting its Post-Enumeration Survey to estimate how many people may have been missed as well as rates of overcounting and undercounting among racial and ethnic groups. Those results are not expected to start rolling out until December.

Can we redo the census?

It's not clear if state population numbers from a do-over can be used to redistribute seats in the House of Representatives — the count's main purpose as outlined by the Constitution. Federal law does allow for a "mid-decade census" in 2025, but the results can't be used for reapportioning the House. There's also a question about money: Would Congress be willing to fund another head count shortly after what's estimated to be the most costly census in U.S. history at $15.6 billion?

What happens next to the first census results?

These state population counts and the new assignment of House seats are part of a handoff process involving the commerce secretary overseeing the bureau, the president and Congress. Ultimately, the numbers are certified by the clerk of the House, who is then charged with officially reporting them to the states.

Some states that have lost seats may sue the Biden administration to challenge how the House was reapportioned, and that may change some states' new number of congressional districts before next year's midterm elections. The new Electoral College map, with votes based on each state's latest share of seats in Congress, goes into effect beginning with the 2024 presidential race.

: 4/25/21

An earlier web and radio version of this story misattributed a quote from Kristin Koslap, senior technical expert on 2020 census congressional apportionment in the Census Bureau's Population Division, to Karen Battle, chief of the bureau's Population Division.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NOEL KING, HOST:

How much political power will your state have in coming national elections? We'll start finding out today when the first results of the 2020 census are released. The census determines your state's share of seats in Congress and votes in the Electoral College. NPR census correspondent Hansi Lo Wang has been following this story. Good morning, Hansi.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: So what do we get today?

WANG: The Census Bureau says around 3 p.m. Eastern today, it's releasing a very basic set of numbers. We're talking about population counts for each state and the country. They do play a big role in reallocating seats in the House of Representatives and the Electoral College. Those votes determine who becomes the next president. But we won't see any data breakdowns by race, ethnicity, age or sex or any numbers for counties, cities or smaller areas.

KING: When do we get that information?

WANG: Those are expected out by August 16. They're part of the second set of census results. They're data needed for the redrawing of voting districts, as well as other purposes. And that timing could be moved up or pushed back, depending on how two lawsuits I'm tracking - they're filed by Alabama and Ohio - how those lawsuits turn out. But important to note, both sets of census results, they're coming months later than originally planned.

KING: Yes. Why is that?

WANG: In-person counting for last year's census for most of the country started late last year. All of those lockdown orders at the very beginning of the pandemic forced the bureau to delay sending out doorknockers to visit households that didn't fill out a form on their own immediately. And then this Trump administration last July decided to cut short the time left for counting. And that really just compounded the mess that was last year's census. And the bureau was left with lots of duplicate and incomplete responses it needed to sort through. And the bureau said it needed that extra time to run quality checks.

KING: Right. So it was partly the pandemic, partly politics. Do you have any idea how accurate the numbers are?

WANG: We won't know that immediately, and we'll hopefully know more in the coming months when more detailed data come out. There are researchers with the American Statistical Association. They're doing an independent audit of the Census Bureau's work. They're expected to release a report in June. And in December, the Census Bureau will start releasing estimates about how many people may have been missed in the census, as well as rates of overcounting and undercounting groups by race and ethnicity. You know, one thing to keep in mind, no U.S. Census has been a perfect count. This is the country's 24th census, but it's only the ninth count the U.S. government's conducted that's tried to include every person living in the country in the numbers for reallocating House seats. Before the 1940 census, some American Indians were excluded from those numbers.

The other thing to keep in mind - the census is supposed to be a snapshot of the population as of April 1, 2020 - very hard to get that right. Very beginning the pandemic, lots of people moving around, lots of confusion about where to get counted. And right now, there are a lot of worries about historically undercounted groups - immigrants, people of color, renters, rural residents. The Trump administration's interference with the schedule, the pandemic, has made it really hard to pinpoint exactly where people were living. But the bureau's career officials, something else to keep in mind, said they haven't found anything so far that have suggested these numbers are not fit to be used for reallocating House seats.

KING: OK, so we get the first set of results today, and then what happens next?

WANG: They're part of a handoff process that ultimately ends with the clerk of the House of Representatives certifying these numbers and reporting them out to the states. Some states that have lost seats may end up filing lawsuits challenging how those seats were assigned. So there might be some lawsuits that shift some House seats in the end before these new House assignments are used for the 2022 midterm elections.

KING: NPR census correspondent Hansi Lo Wang. Thanks, Hansi.

WANG: You're welcome, Noel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.