Census 2020 Explained: Why Americans Moving South and West Matters

By Lou Cannon   |   June 10, 2021

“Go West, young man, and grow up with the country,” a newspaper editor proclaimed as the United States expanded westward in the 19th century.

That advice could be amended now to “South and West,” according to the latest findings of the U.S. Census Bureau, which in April issued its pandemic-delayed count of the nation’s population as required each ten years by the Constitution.

States are awarded seats in the House of Representatives and votes in the Electoral College based on this count, and the 2020 Census was again a victory for the Sun Belt over the Rust Belt, continuing a decades-long trend.

All six states that will gain House seats are in the South or West, including Texas, the only state to gain two seats.

Colorado, North Carolina, Florida, and Oregon will each gain one seat. Montana will also gain a House seat, its second, three decades after it lost that seat in a previous round of apportionment.

Except for California, which lost a seat for the first time, the seven states losing House seats are in the Midwest and East. They are Illinois, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia.

Think participation in the Census doesn’t matter? Tell that to New Yorkers after the Empire State lost a House seat by 89 votes, the narrowest margin in modern times. The census put the 2020 population of New York at 20,215,75l. 

Migration Matters

Overall, U.S. population in the decade from 2010 to 2020 grew from 308,745,538 to 331,449,281, a growth rate of 7.4 percent that is the lowest since the 1930s, the decade of the Great Depression.

Only three states — Illinois, Mississippi, and West Virginia — lost population during the decade. West Virginia lost the most, 3.2 percent.

Americans have been moving South and West in large numbers since World War II, and the 2020 Census shows this trend continuing. New York, which had been the nation’s most populous state since 1810, was passed by California in 1962. 

In the 2020 Census, New York’s loss of a seat and Florida’s gain of a seat drops the Empire State behind the Sunshine State in congressional seats and electoral votes for the first time.

The states that lead in House seats after the 2020 Census are California 52, Texas 38, Florida 28, and New York 26.

California remains by far the nation’s most populous state, with a population of 39,538,223 in the 2020 census.

The Golden State lost a House seat because its growth during the decade — 6.13 percent — was less than the national growth rate. Some 22 states, most of them in the South or West, had growth rates exceeding California’s. 

Texas cemented its position as the second-most populous state with a growth rate of 15.91 percent. Its population is 29,145,505.

Money Matters

The Census determines more than just U.S. House seats. It is also used to direct almost $880 billion in federal funding across over 300 federal programs, including Medicaid, Pell grants, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and highway construction. Census figures also determine how massive federal relief programs like the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act disperse their dollars.

With that in mind, beginning in 2017, states such as Illinois (2017 SB 100), Michigan (2018 SB 848), New York (2018 AB 9505), and New Jersey (AB 4208) passed bills to create complete count committees or commissions. Many others, including North Dakota and South Carolina, chose to do so via gubernatorial executive order.  

Some states also dedicated massive amounts of money to their own state Census programs. California topped the list, allocating $90.3 million in 2018 (SB 840) and another $87 million in 2019 (AB 74).

Based on previous growth data, demographers had predicted that Texas would gain three seats and Florida two and that Arizona would gain a seat. Minnesota and Rhode Island, and perhaps Alabama, were on track to lose seats. 

None of these forecasts came true. Arizona, Florida, and Texas may have fallen short of expectations because of an undercount of Hispanics, said former Attorney General Eric Holder and Arturo Vargas, chief executive officer of the educational fund of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.

The extent of any undercount won’t be known until the Census Bureau releases racial and ethnic data later this year, but the three states in question had census self-response rates below the national average of 67 percent.

Arizona and Florida were the only states that did not participate in a national campaign to boost census response. Texas launched a belated effort after the counting began.

In contrast, Minnesota had a census self-response rate of 75 percent and involved hundreds of organizations in a successful campaign to retain the Gopher State’s eight House seats.

“There was a lot of energy and excitement behind it,” Minnesota state demographer Susan Brower told The New York Times. “It was an army of census nerds.”

Redistricting Questions Remain

States are now waiting for the Census Bureau release of detailed demographic data on which they will base reapportionment of House and state legislative districts in 2021.

Historically, redistricting was done by state legislatures, in some states sharing power with the governor. But more than a score of states now utilize either bipartisan or nonpartisan commissions for redistricting purposes.

All redistricting could be blocked by a lawsuit filed by Alabama and joined by 16 other states that challenges a statistical method the Census Bureau used for the first time in an attempt to protect the privacy of participants in the 2020 census. 

The method, known as “differential privacy,” adds intentional errors to the data to obscure any given individual’s identity while still providing what the Census Bureau claims is statistically valid information.

“It’s a statistical technique that is intended to protect people’s privacy” said Department of Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo during a White House briefing. She said people can now have their private information hacked on social media through means “that technologically weren’t possible 10 years ago.” 

The Alabama lawsuit that seeks to block what the Census Bureau is doing maintains that it is unconstitutional to create “false information by design.”

Differential privacy “would make accurate redistricting at the local level impossible,” violating the constitutional obligation that districts have equal populations and could harm long-running research on health and safety, the plaintiff’s brief contends.

A three-judge federal panel heard arguments on the lawsuit May 3. Because of time constraints any appeal could go directly to the Supreme Court.

A decision overturning differential privacy would complicate the redistricting process, especially for states that are gaining or losing House seats. 

“While redistricting is never easy, the job is harder for gainers and losers because those states can’t just tweak existing maps and may instead start with a clean slate,” observes Wendy Underhill, director of elections and redistricting for the National Conference of State Legislators (NCSL).

Republicans will hold an edge in the redistricting, as they did a decade ago.

As previously noted by State Net, Republicans control 30 legislatures compared to 18 for the Democrats and one (Minnesota) where control is divided between the two parties. Nebraska is a unicameral legislature. 

Republicans control both the legislature and governorship in 23 states compared to 15 for the Democrats.

That could be ominous for the Democrats. The party in power in the White House has lost House seats in 19 of the last 21 midterm elections, and the average seat loss in those 19 cycles was 33 seats.

Republicans won 63 House seats in 2010, the first midterm election when Barack Obama was president. Democrats won 41 seats and regained control of the House in 2018, the midterm election when Donald Trump was president.

Republicans need to gain only five House seats in 2022 to get the majority. 

According to the demographic site FiveThirtyEight, Republicans will control redrawing of 187 congressional districts in the next redistricting compared to 75 for the Democrats. Neither party will have an advantage in another 167 districts, and six districts won’t be redrawn because they are at-large districts covering an entire state.

With Democrats having such dim statistical prospects, it’s no wonder President Joe Biden is rushing to get his expansive legislative agenda enacted while he still has a narrow Democratic majority.

But the next midterm elections are a year and a half away, an eternity in politics. As always in our democracy, voters will decide the outcome.


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