Census facing uncertainty, hostile president

Ladera Ranch, census-designated community in southern Orange County. (Photo: bonandbon, via Shutterstock)

Every 10 years since the 18th century, the United States has counted noses. A lot is riding on this decennial tally. It affects the way federal funding is distributed and it can have a dramatic impact on the boundaries — and number — of political districts.

This time around, California’s congressional seats are on shaky ground. But the uncertainty stems as much from President Trump’s actions as the long-awaited 2020 census numbers, which have been delayed because of the pandemic.

Trump’s executive order is facing three lawsuits, with more on the horizon.

California, the nation’s most populous state with about 39.5 million people through 2019, has 53 House seats. But the state had a net migration loss in 2019 of about 200,000.   States’ seats in the House of Representatives, which is capped at 435 voting members, depend on population counts.

A decrease in California, which is likely, could cost California a seat — a seat that would go to a fast-growing state, such as Colorado, Florida, or Washington.

President Trump’s recent executive order to exclude undocumented immigrants from the census count would drop the tally dramatically in California, which is home to more than two million people who are not in the state legally.

Trump’s executive order is facing three lawsuits, with more on the horizon.

Trump’s “executive order won’t pass any kind of constitutional muster. But if it did, it would cost California at least one seat,” says Paul Mitchell, a California redistricting expert.

California’s population growth, which surged during the 20th century, has slowed during the past 20 years.

According to the Public Policy Institute of California, “in 1900, California was home to fewer than 2 million people; by 1950 the population had reached 10 million. California’s population nearly tripled in the last half of the 20th century, and its growth rate remained much higher than that of the rest of the United States.”

The process of compiling census data has been delayed by about four months in response to the pandemic.

But, the PPIC added, “over the past 20 years, California has experienced its slowest rates of growth ever recorded, and growth has been especially slow since 2017.” This drop in population growth may contribute to the loss of a seat.

California may not be alone in losing seats.

“The potential losers appear to be California, Florida, Texas, and maybe New York. The winners could be Alabama, Minnesota, and Ohio,” Mitchell said, a shift that could potentially give more seats to Republicans.

Predicting the shift in House seats is always dicey, though.

“Of course, there’s a lot of potential undercount issues and variability between the quality of the count in different states, so these are just projections,” Mitchell said.

Political concern about the census doesn’t stop there, however.

The process of compiling census data had been delayed in response to the pandemic. Census Bureau officials said they needed the delay to “protect the health and safety of our staff and the public and make sure we get the same population counted another way.”

This week, Census Bureau Director Steve Dillingham said that field data collection would be halted on Sept. 30, a month before  the October deadline. So far, the census has counted just under two-thirds of the nation’s households.

Rep. Gomez argues that the census delay is necessary to make sure that federal money is distributed properly.

The census delay, like the numbers themselves, could affect other key operations like redistricting and the allocation of federal money.

Rep. Jimmy Gomez (D-Los Angeles) drafted the Fair and Accurate Census Bill, which would federally authorize nationwide census delays.

Gomez argues that the census delay is necessary to make sure that federal money is distributed properly.

“We simply cannot allow an undercount of our communities to result in millions of lost federal funding to support small businesses, schools, healthcare systems, and other critical services and resources. There is far too much at stake,” he said in a written statement.

The measure was introduced on May 27 and has yet to make its way through the House.

“The authorization to delay is still just a bill in Congress, and I don’t know when it will be passed,” Mitchell said, noting that the census teams already are behind schedule. “The census could be in limbo for a while.”

Umberg drafted the bill before the pandemic in hopes of shortening the eight-month period between primary and general elections.

The passage of Gomez’s bill would ensure that federal funds will be allocated based on correct headcounts — but that leaves redistricting teams crunched for time to produce maps for the 2022 elections.

The states, by law, are required to redraw congressional and legislative district lines based on the newly released census numbers and reflecting the shifts in populations. The goal is to have political districts that are similar in number and representative of the inhabitants. Some states have independent commissions to draw the maps. In others, the Legislature handles the task.

But the process can be bitterly partisan; where a district’s lines are drawn can affect the outcome of the election. And if the census numbers are long-delayed, the time frame for map drawing can be compressed into a matter of weeks or even days —  a delay that could affect the quality of the maps.

To help deal with that delay, state Sen. Tom Umbergn (D-Santa Ana) wants to see the March 2022 primary postponed until June.

Umberg’s Senate Bill 970 also pushes back future primary elections to June — not just 2022.

He drafted the bill before the pandemic in hopes of shortening the eight-month period between primary and general elections. Now, the bill will serve to allow redistricting teams proper time to create accurate district maps.

Umberg contends that if the election is not postponed until June, at least in 2022, then “no one will know what districts they’re in… there will be lots of chaos.”

He believes his bill will “pass overwhelmingly,” arguing it isn’t a partisan issue — at least at the state level. Originally, “Republicans had some misgivings, but I don’t think they do now since there’s no possibility we could hold an election in March 2022.

Editor’s Note: Lana Schwartz is a Capitol Weekly intern from Vanderbilt University.



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