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How 26 People In The Census Count Helped Minnesota Beat New York For A House Seat

Minnesota's state demographer, Susan Brower (center), walks with Dean Goldberg, donning a blue cape and black mask as "Census Man," through the 2019 Minnesota State Fair in St. Paul, Minn., to encourage residents to participate in the national head count.
Victor Thorstenson
Minnesota Department of Administration
Minnesota's state demographer, Susan Brower (center), walks with Dean Goldberg, donning a blue cape and black mask as "Census Man," through the 2019 Minnesota State Fair in St. Paul, Minn., to encourage residents to participate in the national head count.

This week, Minnesota's state demographer finally got the numbers she's spent years waiting for.

"I didn't expect to be as nervous as I eventually was as they were unveiling these numbers," says Susan Brower, who was among those glued to the Census Bureau's livestream about the first set of 2020 census results that determine how many seats in Congress and votes in the Electoral College each state gets for the next decade.

Texts and emails started rolling into Brower's phone soon after the bureau confirmed that Minnesota would hold onto the eight seats it currently has in the U.S. House of Representatives.

And after doing some math, Brower uncovered how that almost didn't happen.

"We found that had Minnesota counted 26 fewer residents that we would have lost that eighth congressional district," Brower says. "I knew it was going to be very tight, but I just didn't think it could possibly come out to be that close."

Two for the census history books

In fact, 26 people was the closest margin that secured a congressional seat for a state since Congress approved, after the 1940 national head count, the current formula for turning census numbers into a method for reallocating the 435 seats for voting members of the House.

Each state gets at least one seat, and the rest are assigned one by one according to the states' priority rankings, which factor in their latest population counts.

"What I tell people is that it is not only what our population turns out to be, but it also relies on what every other state's population is," Brower says about explaining how this method of equal proportions works. "There is not any one population target or threshold that we're trying to meet. It really depends on where we fall relative to other states' populations."

Based on the 2020 census results, New York fell right below Minnesota in the rankings, making it one of the seven states that lost a seat.

But that would not have happened if New York's count included 89 more residents, a new record for the smallest number of additional residents a state would have needed in their census numbers to pick up the last assigned House seat.

The jaw-dropping result has drawn skepticism from New York's governor.

"Do I think it was accurate to within 89? No," Gov. Andrew Cuomo said during a press conference in Johnson City, N.Y., the day after the census numbers were released. "And we're looking at legal options because when you're talking about 89, I mean that could be a minor mistake in counting, right?"

The "very little" we know about the count's accuracy

New York would not be the first state in history to file a lawsuit over how House seats have been reallocated. Over the decades, it's become a go-to option for some states that have lost political clout after the head count.

But it might be a while before we see any court action. The bureau is still months away from releasing the more detailed data in the second set of 2020 census results, which are expected by Aug. 16 and, census experts say, will say more about how well the count turned out. The American Statistical Association is expected to put out an independent analysis of the numbers in June, and starting in December, the bureau is releasing its estimates of undercounting and overcounting.

The Census Bureau's acting director, Ron Jarmin, has acknowledged that "no census is perfect," but the bureau's career officials are confident that the numbers meet their "high data quality standards."

"We would not be releasing them to you otherwise," said Jarmin during the virtual announcement by the U.S. government's largest statistical agency.

Outside the bureau, some census watchers are holding their judgment for now.

"At this point, we actually know very little about the accuracy of the overall count," says Arturo Vargas, CEO of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund, who has served on one of the bureau's committees of outside advisers. "It could have been a mistake that the Census Bureau missed 89 people, and on the other hand, there were some estimates that suggest that there were more people counted by the Census Bureau in the state of New York than were expected."

Still, he adds, the bureau has struggled decade after decade with getting complete and accurate counts of people of color, people with lower incomes and immigrants.

"All those populations historically have been undercounted as compared to populations that are white, wealthier and higher educated," Vargas says.

Five hands and one finger

Last year's census was one of the country's most complicated head counts. The bureau counted people living in the U.S. through gathering responses online, over the phone and by paper. Door knockers tried to conduct in-person interviews with unresponsive households and sometimes relied on what their neighbors or landlords knew to get them counted. The bureau also increased its use of government records to help complete the tally.

The challenges brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, plus the Trump administration's failed push for a citizenship question and last-minute decision to cut short counting, have all exacerbated concerns about the numbers, which the bureau delayed releasing in order to run more quality checks.

"There really isn't anything we can do at the moment to change the numbers for apportionment or even change the numbers for redistricting. What we all need to do is to scrutinize future evaluations of the census," Vargas says, adding that it's not too early to start preparing for the 2030 census.

Looking ahead to the next count, Brower, the state demographer, says she's thinking about how to keep drumming up participation in Minnesota, which had the highest self-response rate out of all the states last year.

To try to motivate others, Brower used to repeat the state's margin that saved it from losing a House seat after the 2010 count.

"We used to say, 'just over 8,000,' " Brower says. "Now, we'll be almost counting on our hands."

That's five hands and one finger, to be exact, for the 26 Minnesotans who in the 2020 census made all the difference.

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Hansi Lo Wang (he/him) is a national correspondent for NPR reporting on the people, power and money behind the U.S. census.