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The four factors that might prevent Minnesota from losing a congressional seat after the 2020 Census

Minnesota is likely to lose one of its eight seats in U.S. House after reapportionment, though there’s a slim chance the state could avoid that fate. 

MinnPost file photos

Minnesota is likely going to lose one of its seats in the U.S. House after the next round of reapportionment — when the allocation of congressional seats is redistributed based on the 2020 Census — dropping the state’s current eight to seven. 

It’s not that Minnesota isn’t gaining population, it just isn’t gaining it fast enough compared to other states.

If Minnesota loses a seat in the U.S. House, it will be the first time that’s happened since 1960. As if that isn’t already a blow to the state’s collective self esteem, Minnesota would then have fewer seats than Wisconsin. And have the same number as Alabama. 

That’s the bad news out of last month’s release of state-by-state population estimates from  the U.S. Census Bureau and a reapportionment analysis by Election Data Services, a Virginia-based political consulting firm.

The good news? There’s still a shot that the state could hold on to its eight current seats.

Anticipated gains/losses in reapportionment, 2019 population estimates
Election Data Services
Anticipated gains/losses in reapportionment, 2019 population estimates (click map to enlarge)

Part of an overall pattern

Depending on the type of analysis it applies, EDS reported that Minnesota will either fall 6,740 or 21,992 people short of keeping an eighth congressional seat. A similar analysis a year ago had Minnesota either losing a seat by 27,512 people or keeping one by 26,293 people.

It was that previous analysis that gave state demographer Susan Brower some hope that the state could maintain its current level of representation in Congress. The newest numbers, however, show Minnesota to be moving in the wrong direction. 

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The state is one of 15 that will win or lose seats, part of an overall pattern projecting reapportionment losses in the Northeast and the Midwest. One anomaly: California could also lose a seat for the first time since, well, ever; and Montana will gain a seat — its second  — also for the first time ever.

This release of data by the Census Bureau is based on estimates from July 1, 2019 that use a complex collection of data, including the American Community Survey as well as IRS records on migration; Social Security data; and birth and death records. Still, the only official count — the one the Census Bureau delivers to the president next Dec. 31 and uses to decide the distribution of the 435 seats in the House — is the Constitutionally mandated decennial census that begins April 1

So you’re saying there’s a chance

Should Minnesota just accept its fate, lose a seat in the U.S. House and get ready to deal with the awkward and politically fraught process of dividing the state seven ways instead of eight? Or should it hope for better results in the official count?

Brower admits to being an optimist, but even with that caveat she thinks the state can hold on to its eight seats in Congress. “I think I’m being clear-eyed about it,” Brower said. “We’re definitely on the edge, and I would have liked to have seen more growth coming out of this last set of estimates. But it still seems very reasonable to me that we could hold onto this seat.”

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She gets some support from the person responsible for the most recent analysis of the estimates. Kimball Brace, president of Election Data Services, says the higher estimate of Minnesota’s shortfall for keeping its eighth seat — 21,992 people — is relatively small.

“When somebody gets under 50,000, I really pay attention to it and advise people to pay attention to it.” he said. “From Minnesota’s standpoint, you’re close, you could gain that back. It’s assuming that everybody stays the same which, of course, is never going to happen.”

It is too late for Minnesota to launch some sort of procreation campaign. But there are still factors that could make a difference, including: 

• The accuracy of the count: Ultimately, the count that determines how many seats in the U.S. House each state gets comes down to two things: how many people live in the state, and how well the Census Bureau counts them.

Minnesota is working hard on getting a good count, or, in the parlance of the Census, a “complete count.” The state’s set aside nearly $3.1 million to get as accurate a count of the state’s residents as possible, including populations that are typically hard to count: the highly mobile, homeless, people with low English literacy levels and unauthorized immigrants.

That’s nothing compared to the $187 million California (also at risk of losing a seat) is slated to spend getting an accurate count, but it’s a lot more than some of the states that stand to gain seats. Neither Texas nor Florida’s legislatures have formed state complete count committees, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, for reasons that are political: GOP legislators aren’t keen on helping count residents that might boost Democratic fortunes in the state.

That’s significant because Texas and Florida — states with more immigration and more undocumented immigrants — are traditionally difficult to count, and they may be even more so this time around. There were concerns that a question about citizenship would serve as a deterrent, though after much debate, and a Supreme Court ruling, the question will not appear on the Census form. 

International immigration is down across the U.S., but Brower had been counting on Minnesota’s recent population increases from domestic migration — people moving to the state from other states — to help keep the 8th seat. But that advantage disappeared in the last Census estimate.  “That’s what really dropped off in this last estimate,” she said, while still hoping the recent figures are a blip, not a trend. “Those numbers really do bounce around a lot year to year.”

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In general, response rates to all sorts of surveys are down, Brower said. “Everyone’s tired of being surveyed. For many people, this is just one more.”

That hasn’t historically been a problem in Minnesota. In 2010, the state’s response rates were second only to Wisconsin, and even if its response rates drop, they likely won’t drop as much as other states. That said, there is an ongoing shortage of Census workers; Minnesota is currently 23,000 workers short of what it needs, despite increasing pay rates as high as $27.50 an hour.

• Snowbirds: A more Minnesota-specific factor at play is those Minnesotans who live part of the year in warmer climates. Through Complete Count efforts, Minnesota is trying to inform snowbirds, many of whom will still be in Naples or Scottsdale when the Census is taken starting April 1, that they should respond to the Census as Minnesotans if it is their state of residence.

“It is enough,” Brower said. “I think they’re somewhere around 40,000 statewide is the estimate of people who move seasonally, so when we’re talking about this 6,000 to 25,000 margin, that group could swing it either way.”

The benefit of the snowbirds strategy? Unlike hard-to-reach populations, they tend to fill out their Census forms. “So you don’t have the added barrier to convince them it’s a good thing to do,” Brower said. You just have to get them to respond under the right state.

And for the first time, the initial census response will be done online. Census outreach groups led by non-profits who have received some funding from the state include some targeting residents who spend part of the year elsewhere and who can, with an email prod, answer the nine questions anywhere.

• A hurricane, maybe: A natural disaster, like a hurricane (unlikely at this point, given that hurricanes tend to happen in the summer and fall), could help Minnesota in its quest to keep eight congressional seats. 

Projecting forward, the Census Bureau estimates predicted in 2005 that Louisiana would keep all of its Congressional seats in the 2011 reapportionment. Then Hurricane Katrina hit, lots of people moved away, and Louisiana lost a seat. It’s possible movement following recent natural disasters have thrown off counts.

• Self interest: The Census advocates in Minnesota have already been trying to connect Census response to benefits such as political power and federal funding. Both are determined by how many people are in a state, a county and a city. But one more might be the difference in district size if Minnesota keeps eight House seats rather than seven.

Even though the point of reapportionment is to base representation on population, it does not mean that all districts are equal. State-by-state redistricting is required to make districts roughly equal — one person, one vote — that doesn’t apply to district sizes across the nation.

If Minnesota does miss out on keeping its eight seats, the remaining seven districts will be the sixth largest by population in the country, with roughly 809,000 people in each, based on state’s estimated population of 5.66 million people. Should it be able to hold that eighth seat, the districts would be more than 100,000 people smaller, or about 706,000.

For comparison, by gaining enough for a second congressional seat, Montana’s estimated population of 1,074,909 will produce two districts of 537,455.

It could be worse. Rhode Island, which is projected to go from two seats in the House to one, will have a single district representing 1,059,361 people. 

Brower said she brings up the risk of larger districts when she speaks to groups — especially those in Greater Minnesota.“I ask them to imagine how far their districts would need to extend to encompass 100,000 more people,” she said. “It is so sparsely populated along that western edge of the state and in some counties in the south and in the north as well. They get kind of wide-eyed. They understand just how big those districts are going to have to grow.”