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Five takeaways for Minnesota from the first round of Census numbers

Though more detailed data will be coming later this year, Monday’s population counts can tell states a lot about their political futures.

Apportionment of the U.S. House of Representatives based on the 2020 Census
Apportionment of the U.S. House of Representatives based on the 2020 Census
U.S. Department of Commerce

The U.S. Census Bureau released its first results from the 2020 Census Monday, providing apportionment data that determine how many congressional districts each state will have — Minnesota will keep all eight of its districts, meaning it won’t lose a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.

These are just preliminary numbers, with more detailed data coming later this year. But Monday’s population counts can tell states a lot about their political futures. Here are five takeaways for Minnesotans to keep in mind:

Minnesota will keep its congressional districts, but it was a close call

Minnesota currently has eight congressional districts, meaning that it has eight seats in the House of Representatives. It held on to all of those districts in the 2020 Census results, meaning that it will continue to have eight seats until the next decennial census in 2030.

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“Nobody really expected this result,” said Cindy Rugeley, head of the University of Minnesota’s political science department. Preliminary estimates showed Minnesota as a likely candidate for losing a seat in the House, but it held on by a thread.

The results mean Minnesotans will also continue to have the same number of Electoral votes (one for each member of the House and of the Senate) during the next two presidential elections. The census count also impacts the distribution of federal funding for programs like Medicaid, Medicare, and Head Start. 

The Census Bureau also gives states demographics information that helps them redistrict. But the data provided Monday doesn’t do that. Due to pandemic-related delays, that detailed information — which is used to redraw new voting maps — is scheduled to be released by the Census Bureau by Sept. 30 at the latest.

Members of the Minnesota delegation were, unsurprisingly, happy to hear about this development.

Minnesota’s high census participation rates and population growth over the past decade means we’ll be keeping our representation, and clout, in Congress,” said Third District Rep. Dean Phillips. “That’s outstanding news. Minnesotans contribute more than our fair share to Washington, and I’m renewing my mission to bring more support back to our communities.”

Eighth District Rep. Pete Stauber said it was an “honor” to represent his district, and that he is “thrilled Minnesota will be keeping the Great Eight for the next decade.”

DFL Party Chairman Ken Martin sent out a statement celebrating the state’s “win,” saying that it is a “testament to the people of Minnesota’s incredible commitment to civic engagement and democracy.”

Republican Party of Minnesota Chairwoman Jennifer Carnahan released a statement saying that  in the past two election cycles, Republicans have flipped three congressional seats in Minnesota (the first, seventh, and eighth districts). “No matter what the new districts look like, we are optimistic about our possibilities to flip even more seats in 2022,” Carnahan said.

Minnesota had the highest self-response rate in the nation

Minnesota’s self-response rate for the 2020 Census was 75.1 %, the highest in the country, while the national average for response rate was around two-thirds. This may have had some impact on population count, but it likely didn’t affect the accuracy too much.

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“The Census Bureau starts with a self-response rate, but then they’re the ones who go out and knock on doors and try to gather information from other sources,” said Peter S. Wattson, former Minnesota Senate counsel and retired redistricting attorney. “They try to count everybody, and usually get a very high percentage of known residents and their addresses.”

Minnesota’s high response rate mirrors its high voter turnout rate: In the 2020 election, it had the highest voter turnout in the country at 79.96%, and also hit No. 1 in voter turnout in the 2016 and 2018 elections.

Minnesota “took” a seat from New York

The Census Bureau uses a formula called the “Method of Equal Proportions” to determine how many seats each state receives. The House of Representatives has 435 seats, and each state must get at least one. After the first 50 states, the Census Bureau uses the “Method of Equal Proportions” to distribute the remaining 385 seats.

The math here is complicated — technically, Minnesota didn’t “take” anything from New York. Its eighth district was prioritized just slightly higher than what would have been New York’s 27th in the Census Bureau’s “Method of Equal Proportions.” But if New York had counted just 89 more people — and counts in all other states were held constant — it would have taken that seat while Minnesota would have lost one.

That margin is the smallest since 1940. In fact, the next-closest scenario was in 1970, when Oregon needed just 231 more people to gain a fifth congressional seat. 

Demographers and political analysts expected New York to lose one or two seats and expected Minnesota to lose one, so in theory this could be good news to both states. But that 89-person margin was too close for New Yorkers, who are already blaming Gov. Andrew Cuomo for their loss of representation in Congress.

We might be looking at a lawsuit

With a margin as close as 89 votes, New Yorkers may feel cheated. And there are likely some attorneys firing up their laptops to prep for a lawsuit — it’s happened before with larger margins.

In 1991, Washington state won the 435th seat over Massachusetts by a small number of people, which Massachusetts argued was because Washington counted a much larger number of overseas federal employees among its residents. Massachusetts sued to challenge the count and lost the lawsuit. In 2001, North Carolina won the 435th seat by 856 people over Utah. Utah sued to challenge the count and lost. In 2011, Minnesota was on the edge of losing a seat when it beat out North Carolina by 15,800 people, a margin large enough to keep North Carolina from suing.

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“All kinds of people will say these numbers are not right, you missed us here, you missed us there,” said Wattson. “We can make the argument that New York may think it has more people, but we can show the court that our data is probably more accurate than theirs because our self-response rate is higher.”

Wattson assumes that New York will push a lawsuit this time. Although past cases’ outcomes would lead to the assumption that the lawsuit will fail, the Census Bureau has not seen a margin this small since 1940, when the current counting method began.

“The pandemic would certainly give New York a reason to want to question the returns,” Rugeley said. “I think there’s a real good chance of [a lawsuit]. Eighty-nine people ain’t much.”

Expect questions about the accuracy of census results moving forward

Every 10 years, the Census Bureau conducts a “complete and accurate enumeration” of each person in the U.S., but the unprecedented disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic have both slowed the release process for the data and raised questions about its accuracy.

The count for the decennial census just happened to occur at the same time as the COVID-19 pandemic ripped its way through America, making it more difficult to get the word out to self-report to some Americans. But officials from the Census Bureau said that in the end, this didn’t affect the accuracy of its data.

The most accurate source, according to Census Bureau research, is the information that people give about themselves when they complete their census forms.

“We advertised on pizza boxes instead of during basketball games,” said Dr. Ron S. Jarmin, acting director of the Census Bureau. “We mailed additional reminders to respond, and we emailed households and lower responding areas and worked with colleges and universities directly to ensure their students were counted in the right place.”

But they couldn’t reach everyone. The COVID-19 pandemic and natural disasters created challenges for data collection, resulting in scheduling delays and limiting the time needed to process data. A December 2020 congressional hearing described internal Census Bureau documents revealing 15 different data errors affecting the accuracy of census data.

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No census is perfect, and it’s affected by human error as well as data insecurity. In a state like Minnesota, a lot of people go to southern states for the winter, and could have been counted twice for that reason. And the U.S. has seen 572,000 total deaths from the coronavirus, many of which occurred after the April 1, 2020 cutoff.

“One thing I do have my eye on is just, are the numbers looking like what we would have expected them to look like?” said Susan Brower, Minnesota state demographer. 

Brower said that the question of accuracy will be key as the Census Bureau releases its more detailed demographic information this fall. “It was a strange enough census, a rushed enough census, that it raised enough concerns about the quality of these numbers,” she said.