When Will Washington Come to its Census?

Earlier this year, the U.S. Census Bureau admitted that it got the 2020 numbers wrong — overcounting or undercounting people by as much as 6.8% — in more than a quarter of the states comprising its Population and Housing Census, the official count of the nation’s population which happens every ten years

According to its 2020 Post-Enumeration Survey Estimation Report, the Bureau undercounted the population in six states: Arkansas (by 5%), Florida (3.5%), Illinois (by 2%), Mississippi (by 4.1%), Tennessee (by 4.8%), and Texas (by 1.9%); the Bureau overcounted the population in eight states: Delaware (by 5.5%), Hawaii (6.8%), Massachusetts (by 2.2%), Minnesota (by 3.8%), New York (by 3.4%), Ohio (by 1.5%), Rhode Island (by 5.1%), and Utah (by 2.6%).

The Bureau’s miscount in 2020 and its 8.1% net overcount is highly unusual; historically, errors are typically negligible. In a 2012 press release, the Bureau reported that the 2010 Census “had a net overcount of 0.01 percent… (which) was not statistically different from zero.” The 2000 Census had “an estimated net overcount of 0.49 percent” and the 1990 Census had “a net undercount of 1.61 percent.” The 1980 Census undercounted the population by about 1.2 percent.

The constitutionally-mandated Census is used to determine the number of seats that each state is allocated in the U.S. House of Representatives. Those counts also determine how $1.5 trillion in federal funding (including more than 300 federal spending programs) is distributed to state and local governments, nonprofits, businesses, households, and individuals across the nation. This $1.5 trillion in federal spending guided by census data — while a huge amount on its own — represents less than a third of total federal spending.

“Those costly errors will distort congressional representation and the Electoral College,” writes Hans von Spakovsky, a former member of the Federal Election Commission. “It means that when the Census Bureau reapportioned the House of Representatives, Florida was cheated out of two additional seats it should have gotten; Texas missed out on another seat; Minnesota and Rhode Island each kept a representative they shouldn’t have, and Colorado was awarded a new member of the House it didn’t deserve.”

Of the six states whose populations were undercounted (Arkansas, Florida, Illinois, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Texas) all but one (Illinois) voted for Donald Trump in 2020. In the eight states whose populations were overcounted (Delaware, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Rhode Island, and Utah), all but two (Ohio and Utah) voted for Joe Biden in 2020.

So what can be done?

“There is no remedy in the federal statutes governing the census and apportionment to correct this problem,” says von Spakovsky.  “Even if the states most affected could win a case in court, how would you come up with a remedy?”

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