It’s bad enough that snowbirds get to skip out on suffering through Minnesota’s winters. Now they might also cost us a House seat

Looking forward to the 2020 Census, there’s a chance Minnesota could lose one of its U.S. House seats.

The state’s population just isn’t growing fast enough relative to other states to be certain to keep its eight seats in Congress. Midwestern states like Minnesota, Illinois and Michigan stand to lose to fast-growing states like Florida and Texas.

It wouldn’t take much. The deciding factor could be between 10,000 and 30,000 people, according to the most recent projections by Election Data Services, a consulting company that works on redistricting.

Perhaps more than 30,000 in number, one group that’s big enough to help tip the scales in one direction or the other is so-called snowbirds, people whose permanent homes are in Minnesota but who fly south for the winter, often not returning until April or later — well after Census forms are sent out, typically in March.

“It’s really going to be tricky because snowbirds will receive a form at their house in Florida, or Arizona, or California and they’ll just have to know they’re a Minnesota resident and they should be filling it out as a Minnesotan, for their usual residence,” said State Demographer Susan Brower.

Apportionment math

States are guaranteed two U.S. Senate seats, but they’re apportioned some of the 435 seats in the House based on the size of their population: For the most part, each district is designed to include the same number of people.

Minnesota has had eight congressional districts since the ’60s, a sign that its population has been relatively stable in size relative to the rest of the country since that time (it previously had nine).

Whether Minnesota loses a seat comes down to not just its own growth, but other states’ too.

Minnesota’s population has grown by about 5.1 percent since the 2010 Census, just below the national average of 5.5 percent. But that’s dwarfed by gains in states like Texas, the fastest growing in the union, which gained 13 percent, and Florida, which gained nearly 12 percent in that time period.

Current projections about population growth in other states say that whether Minnesota ends up with seven or eight seats in the House could come down to a population of just 30,000 people, according to estimates by Election Data Services. Under some projections, that threshold could be as low as 10,000.

“Minnesota is very, very close to losing a seat. If you look at the last seven years of growth, Minnesota does lose a seat,” Brower told MinnPost. If you assume Minnesota sustains the faster clip it’s seen in the last year, however, the state barely hangs onto its eighth seat.

Assuming, that is, that other states don’t pick up the pace of their growth too much.

“There’s a lot more ambiguity around what the outcome will be than most people realize,” Brower said.

A giant flock of snowbirds

Which brings us back to snowbirds. There are a lot of them.

A 2015 survey by the Minnesota Board on Aging and the Department of Human Services found about 4 percent of Minnesotans over age 65 live in another state for part of the year (they may not all be snowbirds). That’s about 32,000 people, and that’s just the over-65 set. Some snowbirds are in their 50s and early 60s, making the number of snowbirds likely far bigger than the number of people it might take to lose a congressional seat.

Snowbirds aren’t the only group officials are paying special attention to as the Census looms.

Brower is holding trainings to help local officials understand the importance of getting an accurate count, paying special attention to hard-to-count communities, including highly mobile people, people in complex family and household structures, college-age people. A public awareness campaign to make snowbirds aware of the issue is in the works.

Census forms, unlike other mail, aren’t forwarded to snowbirds from their Minnesota addresses. Rather, snowbirds should fill out the form the Census mails to, say, their beach condo in sunny Naples, Florida, if they’re there to receive it.

As far as the Census is concerned, a person’s place of residence is where they live and sleep most of the time. If that’s Minnesota, the form should be marked as such, Brower said.

Look no further than the last Census to see how sometimes there’s not a lot of wiggle room: Minnesota hung onto its eighth seat in 2010 by just 8,739 people, Brower said. That year, there was also an awareness campaign targeted at snowbirds.

This time, Brower says, her estimates put keeping that eighth seat in reach, but not by much.

“To me, it still looks very possible to hang onto that eighth congressional seat. We’re still in striking distance,” Brower said.

Not just Congress

Brower’s not the only person in the state hoping to get the word out to snowbirds. State funding formulas for local government aid also use Census counts to allocate money, making an accurate count important for cities.

Kim Low, the treasurer for tiny Dresbach Township, Minnesota (population: 456), on the banks of the Mississippi River south of Winona, estimates about 40 percent of the township’s residents go south for the winter — enough to have her worried about getting a good count.

“As small as our community is, we have a pretty high percentage, I feel, of snowbirds, so getting that word out — whether we do it via postcard, or I’ve actually been building a pretty good email database,” will be important, she said.

In Jackson, Minnesota, west of Fairmont, office manager Deb Mitchell says the city is planning to do some outreach on the topic, too. She estimates up to 200 of the town’s 3,200 residents leave for warmer climes in the winter.

Luckily for Jackson, it’s one of the few spots in the state where residents read their own electricity and water meters and submit reports — so snowbirds already have to tell the city when they’ll be gone so staff don’t expect them to send a meter reading.

“We’re probably going to have a better handle on this than some,” Mitchell said. “We have all their phone numbers.”

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