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Census delays could hamper Minnesota lawmakers’ ability to redraw state political map

The data needed to draw political districts is supposed to be delivered by the Census Bureau by April 1. 

Minnesota had the highest self-reporting response rate — the percentage of households that responded on line or by mail to the prompt from the bureau — in the U.S. at 75.1 percent.
Minnesota had the highest self-reporting response rate — the percentage of households that responded on line or by mail to the prompt from the bureau — in the U.S. at 75.1 percent.
United State Census 2020

Being number one in the nation when it comes to responding to the 2020 census will only get Minnesota so far next year, when it uses the decennial population count to redraw state and local political districts.

Susan Brower
Susan Brower
State demographer Susan Brower said she fears delays by the Census Bureau in getting final numbers to the states could make it difficult for the Legislature to draw new congressional and legislative districts during the regular 2021 session. 

Block-level data  — the information needed to draw political districts — is supposed to be delivered by April 1. But Brower said Census officials have been surveying the states to see if they have legal deadlines for drawing new maps and what they are.

Minnesota does, but not until February of 2022, and Brower thinks that might put the state behind states that have earlier deadlines.“We’ll get something, but the question is how late will it be?” Brower said. “It may be that they don’t get it in time for this session and will have to do it next.”

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Minnesota had the highest self-reporting response rate — the percentage of households that responded online or by mail to the prompt from the bureau — in the U.S. at 75.1 percent. A high percentage reduces the burden of Census workers to visit or call people who did not respond. Washington state was second at 72.4 percent and Wisconsin was third with 72.2.

“Since we outpaced the nation and even the next-highest state by a couple of percentage points, I think Minnesota did really well,” Brower said. A high self-response rate, either online or on paper, leads to more accurate and more complete numbers, she said. 

But the end of the census was rushed after the Trump Administration first decided to extend the field work and data analysis — and then reversed that decision. “At the very end things were closed up very quickly,” Brower said. “It was hard to tell just how accurate the results were going to be, how good the follow up was by census takers. There may be things the Census bureau can do to fix it with more time.

“The questions will be how good will the data be and how quick will they get it to us?” Brower continued. “Will it be in time for a full redistricting process to occur?” 

Lawmakers can do preliminary work

Sen. Mark Johnson, R-East Grand Forks, the chair of the Senate Redistricting Committee that’s responsible for shepherding the chamber’s mapmaking, said Monday he has been briefed on the census data timing issues. “There’s a likelihood that a lot of that information could be delayed,” Johnson said. “That is a concern, not to be able to get it done during regular session, of course, but we do have a lot of preliminary work” that can be done before block data is received.

State Sen. Mark Johnson
State Sen. Mark Johnson
Johnson said his committee will hold town halls around the state, meet with interested groups, hire staff and brief other legislators on the process, since even veteran lawmakers might not be familiar with a process that only happens once a decade.“So when the time comes to actually create what we hope will be the final maps, people are comfortable with what is happening,” Johnson said. 

Johnson said it would be “ideal” for block data to be in hand before the end of the regular session in the third week of May. But if not, the committee could meet in the interim and the Legislature could return in special session to adopt legislative and congressional maps. To meet state law and give candidates time to adjust to new boundaries, redistricting must be approved by the Legislature — or the courts — by February 15, 2022.

Despite Minnesota’s recent history of being unable to produce plans without court intervention, Johnson said he was confident that the GOP Senate and DFL House could reach a deal on redistricting. 

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Worries about the count

Brower isn’t alone in her concerns about the timing and quality of the census data. A report published last week by the federal government’s General Accounting Office pointed out that the accelerated schedule might affect the quality of data and the confidence in the final census count. In response to the impact of the pandemic, the Census had changed its timelines in the spring on when its workers could get into neighborhoods to find non-responsive households.

That schedule was changed again in August, this time to speed up the process. A federal district court judge in September stopped the change, but the U.S. Supreme Court reversed that order. That shortened by two weeks the time Census field workers had to try to get information from those who hadn’t self-reported. And it shortened from 153 days to 77 days the time set aside to process those responses. One reason for the accelerated schedule was to give the Trump Administration data to  challenge the counting of undocumented immigrants.

Also last week, the chair of the U.S. House committee that oversees the Census Bureau, U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney, sent a letter to the Department of Commerce asking for information on data anomalies that could impact the final numbers.

“One of the internal documents cited by Maloney is a Nov. 19 presentation for senior bureau officials that describes 13 anomalies that affect more than 900,000 census records,” the AP reported. “They include a problem related to duplicate non-response follow-up records in every state, a data error from the count of group quarters that affects more than 16,000 records, and a coding error affecting about 46,000 records in nine states.”

“Group quarters” include college housing, homeless shelters, group homes and prisons.

In response, the bureau released a statement saying, “the estimated date that apportionment data will be complete remains in flux. These kinds of anomalies and issues are expected and are similar to the Census Bureau’s experience in prior decennial censuses.”

“No shortcuts are being taken when it comes to patching the software to correct these anomalies, or others that may be discovered as data processing continues, and resources are being added to post-data collection processing to ensure timely and accurate data is delivered for the Census Bureau’s important mission.”

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Brower’s office, the Minnesota State Demographic Center, was in charge of coordinating the state’s census efforts. That included spending $1.6 million of state money, 60 percent of which went to “complete count committees” — both non profit groups and local governments — to help boost participation, especially among hard-to-count populations.

Initially, the field work was to have gone on from May 13 to July 31. That was shifted due to the pandemic from a period between August 6 to October 15. In addition to door knocking, Census workers called and emailed non-responding households and sent additional mail and email into areas with response rates below 50 percent.

The bureau also set up 705 assistance events where Census workers could be available at grocery stores and food shelves in low-responding areas of Minnesota, and visited meal kitchens and shelters to count people experiencing homelessness. Finally, bureau staff used other means to assess the number of people who didn’t respond in other ways, such as interviewing neighbors or postal carriers and tapping administrative records such as tax filings.

How the count could affect Minnesota’s congressional seats

Minnesota has a special interest in the state-by-state counts because they are also used for reapportionment: the process by which the 435 seats in the U.S. House are distributed among the states. Minnesota currently has eight seats but it is on the losing side of the dividing line for keeping all eight, according to analyses done following the 2019 population estimate

“It’s going to be very close,” Brower said. Those 2019 population estimates suggested that the state would lose a seat by 7,000-22,000 people, depending on the growth assumption used. 

“This margin is small enough that both self-response rates and accuracy of the data will likely play a role in whether we keep or lose the seat,” Brower said. “Looking at the states that are on the bubble with Minnesota, we far surpassed the others in self-response.”  

Montana’s self-response rate was 60.4 percent, Florida 63.8 percent, Alabama 63.6 percent and Ohio 70.7 percent.”

But her concerns with the quality of the census extend to her assessment of reapportionment. “In order to make a reasonable estimate of whether we are going to keep our 8th Congressional seat, I would need to be able to trust that the data that we are going to get out of the census are going to be accurate and complete.” she said. “Right now I have too many questions about this to be able to say which side of the dividing line we will fall.”

Redistricting timeline

DateEvent
April 1, 2020Official date of the U.S. Census.
December 31, 2020*Initial statewide population results are released by the census bureau. With release of the initial 2020 results, ideal populations for congressional and legislative districts can be calculated and compared with current district populations, which are still based on the 2010 census.
2021 legislative sessionUpon convening of new legislature, appropriate committees on redistricting established to begin work drawing new maps.
April 1, 2021*Comprehensive block-level census totals are released to the state. These are the data that contain the level of detail necessary for new districts and maps to be created.
Late 2021 legislative session, early 2022 sessionLegislature draws and debates new district maps. Maps are approved and enacted into law.
February 15, 2022Deadline for enactment of new congressional and legislative districts. (Note: this deadline is an aspirational “policy” of the legislature. See § 204B.14, subd. 1a.)
March 29, 2022 (or within 60 days following completion of legislative districts)Deadline for reestablishment or redistricting of municipal precincts (and wards, where applicable); local redistricting may begin upon adoption of new precinct boundaries.
April 26, 2022 (or within 80 days following completion of legislative districts)Deadline for adoption of new local government election districts (except in certain cities with elections in 2021).
August 9, 2022
and
November 8, 2022
State Primary and State General Elections. Candidates are elected based on the newly-drawn districts.
Note: Dates marked with an * are approximate for the 2020 cycle
Source: Minnesota House Research Department