IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Why about a million people who don't exist will have representation in Congress

Minnesota’s population being overestimated by up to 310,000 residents means the state almost certainly should have lost a seat in Congress.
Image: A youth ambassador conducting a census interview with people walking by.
A YMCA youth ambassador conducts a census interview at a community food distribution location in Los Angeles on Aug. 12, 2020.Patrick T. Fallon / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

The U.S. Census Bureau revealed Thursday that 2020’s national headcount was a bust. Significant overcounts or undercounts in 14 states will not only have profound implications for how Americans are represented in government but will also affect the amount of money their states get from Washington.

It’s a scandal, albeit one for which no individual or institution deserves any blame.

Owing to the unforeseen pressures of the pandemic, hurricanes in the South and unreliable response rates, the 2020 census was marred by inaccuracies, the bureau’s regular Post-Enumeration Survey revealed. The states that will suffer the most as a result of these errors are, by and large, majority Republican. It’s a scandal, albeit one for which no individual or institution deserves any blame. Republicans are certain to make the most of it, but Democrats cannot ignore the errors either. Their own rhetoric around reapportionment won’t let them.

Overcounts helped Hawaii, Delaware, Rhode Island, Minnesota and Massachusetts boost their standing in the reapportionment process. The overestimations range from a little more than 100,000 residents to nearly 1 million people who don’t exist but will enjoy representation in Congress. Minnesota, for example, barely managed to hang on to its eight seats in the House. But the survey’s conclusion that Minnesota’s population was overestimated by up to 310,000 residents means the state almost certainly should have lost a seat.

By contrast, most of the states that were undercounted are led by Republicans: Texas, Florida, Mississippi, Tennessee and Arkansas were undercounted by two to five points on average. The Natural State is, perhaps, the biggest loser of the 2020 census. The survey estimates that 5 percent of the population was missed, or about 160,000 residents. For comparison, consider that the state’s biggest city, Little Rock, is home to 198,000 people.

The errors don’t all cut in one partisan direction. Ohio, a Republican-led state that is shedding population and lost a seat in the House because of the 2020 census, was overcounted. Illinois, a Democratic stronghold, lost a seat in Congress (some analysts expected that it would lose two) when, according to the Post-Enumeration Survey, the state actually added roughly a quarter million residents in the past decade. New York lost a seat in the House because of population decline, coming up short in the official tally by only 89 people. That was, at the time, controversial. But we know that the bureau assumed anywhere from 382,000 to 1 million more New Yorkers than there are in reality. But the exceptions prove the rule: The populations of GOP-led states were more often the victims of the census’s errors than those in states dominated by Democrats.

Most gratingly, and as is too often the case, the census likely undercounted Black people and Hispanic people while overestimating white people and Asians. The bureau is unable to put a finer point on the matter than that because the survey is not broad enough to measure subgroups with the requisite specificity. And yet, particularly in the South, the underrepresentation of Black people and Hispanic people is measurable.

As is too often the case, the census likely undercounted Black people and Hispanic people while overestimating white people and Asians.

“The post-enumeration results will be what they are,” Census Bureau Director Robert Santos told NPR in February. “No census is perfect.” True enough, and the bureau does better in some decades than others. But Santos assured his interlocutor that the “quality” data his agency accumulated was “fit for the purposes of reapportionment and redistricting.” Not so much, it turns out. Had the count been more accurate, “there definitely would have been changes in reapportionment,” Queens College professor and demographer Andrew Beveridge told The New York Times.

There will be no subsequent changes to the congressional maps of the 2020s as a result of this survey. In 1999, the Supreme Court barred the use of statistical sampling to produce census data for the purpose of reapportionment. The Post-Enumeration Survey can, however, be used where federal aid is apportioned to the states based on their populations: funding for highways, for example. Congress is sure to take a keen interest in providing reparative relief to the states wronged by the census undercount, particularly if Republicans retake one or both chambers of Congress.

The census’s errors, however understandable due to the exigencies of the demonic year 2020, are outrageous. Democrats are obligated to treat this development as a scandal if we are to take their heated rhetoric over a court-drawn congressional map in the state of New York at face value.

In September 2021, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul signaled her intention to “wrestle control of the redistricting process away from a bipartisan commission” if it produced a map that didn’t benefit Democrats. And when the commission failed to satisfy the state’s Democrats, the Legislature did “wrestle” control away. Its final product was an egregious gerrymander that left only four of the state’s 26 districts leaning Republican. The map would have decimated half the state’s Republican delegation and likely sent three or four new Democrats to Congress. At least it would have if it hadn’t violated a 2014 state constitutional provision creating the bipartisan redistricting commission. The courts intervened, stripping the legislature of its role in the reapportionment process and empowering an intermediary to develop a new map that has set the state’s Democratic lawmakers against one another.

New York’s Democrats are upset with the new maps in part because they do to New York what the Census Bureau’s misses in 2020 did to so many Republican-led states: They dilute the voting power of Black and Hispanic communities.

Democrats are upset with the new maps because they do to New York what the Census Bureau’s misses did to so many Republican-led states.

Rep. Joyce Beatty, an Ohio Democrat and chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, accused the court of engaging in “racially motivated” repression. “It would make Jim Crow blush,” Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, a New York Democrat, said of the state's new congressional districts, which “disenfranchised Black voters throughout the city of New York and beyond.” The powerful Democrat was one of many who was drawn out of the Brooklyn district where he resides, as were many other Democrats who suddenly found themselves representing new terrain or facing off against their fellow caucus members.

According to a letter submitted to a court on behalf of voters Democrats believe have been disenfranchised by the new map, “Black members of New York's congressional delegation have built diverse coalitions of support; they represent communities of Black, Brown, and White voters. The Proposed Map threatens to undo this significant progress,” the letter says.

If, as Jeffries claims, the effect (if not intention) of New York’s new map is to “dilute the ability of Black communities to elect the candidate of their choice,” consistency should lead him and those who agree with him to extend the same consideration to those same communities in the South. Or, for that matter, white people and Hispanic people there. And if the overrepresentation and undue influence of particular demographics is as genuine a concern for Democrats as they say it is, then they should be outraged by Minnesota’s undeserved seat in Congress. They still have time to say so, but I won’t hold my breath.