May 2

By Suzanne Lynch

In the end it came down to a shortage of just 89 residents. As the US Census Bureau reported its first batch of census figures this week, it emerged that New York state would lose a seat in Congress – but by the narrowest of margins. Officials revealed that if New York had counted 89 more people than the 20.2 million registered, the state would have held on to all of its 27 its seats in the House of Representatives. Instead, one of its seats when to Minnesota.

“Respond to the census people!” said one Albany official, as residents across the state expressed frustration about how it had prepared for the count.

The US census takes place once every 10 years, as mandated in the constitution. Though a bureaucratic exercise, it has important political implications. As well as affecting how federal money is spent across the country, it determines how many seats are apportioned to each state in the 435-member House. In turn, that shapes how electoral college votes are allocated in presidential elections.

In 2020, the census process was particularly fraught. The Trump administration sought to add a citizenship question to the census form – an attempt to exclude undocumented immigrants from the tally. It was seen as an effort to dilute the political power of Democrat-heavy states such as California with a high number of immigrants. Among the counter arguments to the Trump position was that the US constitution explicitly states that the apportionment of House seats should be based on the “whole number of persons in each state”. Ultimately, the supreme court blocked Trump’s efforts.

The coronavirus pandemic, which erupted in the US just as information-gathering for the census rolled out nationwide last March, also complicated matters, with Donald Trump resisting calls for deadlines to be extended to ensure an accurate enumeration. Despite the pandemic, mask-wearing census workers knocked on doors across the country.

The results announced this week are revealing – not just in terms of how they will impact on congressional representation, but also as a snapshot of the changing demographics of the United States.

Overall, the US’s population expanded by a slower rate than in most previous decades, reflecting a lower fertility rate and a decrease in immigration. The population now stands at 331.5 million.

The census results also show a migratory patten – states in the north and rustbelt area, which were traditionally the focal point of the nation when European immigrants began arriving to America, are experiencing relative population decline, while so-called “sun-belts” mainly in the south are expanding.

Ohio, Illinois and Pennsylvania were among the states to lose seats, while booming states such as Texas and Florida added representation. California also lost a seat for the first time since records began – illustrating a growing willingness by residents to move out of the high-cost state to nearby places such as Arizona, Nevada and Oregon. Similarly, New York city in particular has seen many residents move south to places including North Carolina, Florida and Arizona, due to high taxes.

The changing demographic map of America also has implications politically. On the surface, Republicans look set to benefit from the population shifts. The states with the biggest population increases voted Republican in November’s presidential election. However, states such as Florida, North Carolina, Colorado and Texas are also becoming more politically-diverse and are regarded as swing states, making the picture more complex as it is unclear where the extra residents stand politically.

The next step in the process is the redistricting of seats. The census data will be used to draw new congressional and legislative districts. The process is usually overseen by the legislatures in each state and is a highly contentious process.

While some states have set up independent commissions to draw up election maps, in most states – mainly those run by Republicans – the state legislature controls the process. Elaborate gerrymandering was behind many Republican gains after 2011, resulting in Republicans often winning a disproportionate number of congressional seats relative to the number of registered Republican voters, for example in states such as Pennsylvania.

The supreme court was forced to weigh in on high-profile gerrymandering cases involving states including Texas and North Carolina. Ten years later, the system is likely to be equally fraught as states begin the decennial process of drawing electoral boundaries ahead of next year’s midterm elections. Given the tight margins evident in recent elections in many swing states across the country, redistricting could have a profound impact on the political map in the United States for the next decade.