Alabama is about as red as a state can get. The state hasn’t voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since 1976. Right now, one of the biggest concerns among top GOP leaders in Alabama is losing a congressional seat.
“Alabama is in jeopardy of losing a congressperson,” Governor Kay Ivey told the Association of County Commissions of Alabama in August.
Census 2020 is three years away, but some Republican states are already worried it won’t go well. Congress is underfunding the Census Bureau, which is likely to result in some people not getting counted. In the past, the Census Bureau has admitted that it undercounted African Americans and Hispanic Americans, populations that typically vote for Democrats. But outside groups such as the Salvation Army and the Census Project argue that the government has also undercounted people in rural communities, populations that typically lean Republican.
Governor Ivey is touring her state urging local government officials and business leaders to ensure that every single person living in Alabama gets counted in Census 2020, especially in rural areas. The results of the census will determine how many congressional seats each state gets, as well as how many electoral college votes, used to determine the next president.
The difference between Alabama keeping or losing one of its seven congressional seats (six of which are held by Republicans) could come down to fewer than a thousand people.
After the 2000 Census, North Carolina and Utah battled for the final congressional seat. North Carolina ended up getting it by a margin of 856 people. Utah appealed the count all the way to the Supreme Court, arguing that the Census Bureau should count Mormons from Utah who are serving as missionaries overseas as well, but Utah lost that fight. (Only military and federal employees living abroad were counted.)
Kenneth Prewitt, the Census Bureau director in 2000, remembers the fierce debate well. It’s why he’s speaking up so vocally to warn Congress that it must increase funding to ensure that everyone gets counted. Some of the very Republicans who are trying to cut costs for Census 2020 might end up regretting it if their state or party loses a seat.
“There will be two states in play for the final (congressional) seat. They will not want to have an undercount or flawed count,” says Prewitt, now a professor at Columbia University. He points out that a fair and accurate census count is required by the U.S. Constitution.
It all comes down to money. Some congressional Republicans want to hold the line on spending. They think the Census should cost the same in 2020 as it did in 2010, even though America has millions more people and a dollar today is worth less than it was in 2010.
The census “is another example of unnecessary and completely unwarranted government intrusion,” Ted Poe, a Republican congressman from Texas, wrote in a 2015 piece. Poe argues that the Census Bureau doesn’t need to do many of its smaller surveys, but those are often used to test techniques for the decennial census.
The big idea to save money was to do the census online in 2020. It sounded wise, until massive hacking attempts — such as the Equifax breach — put the data of millions of people at risk. There’s growing unease about giving the government (or anyone else) so much personal data online.
The results of the census are used to divvy up 435 congressional seats and $675 billion in federal government funding a year. There have been major swings in the U.S. population since 2010, with people moving south and west and into big cities.
So far, the census has data on what’s happened to the U.S. population from 2010 to 2016. During that period, only three states have seen their populations shrink: West Virginia, Vermont and Illinois. That might not seem like a big deal to Republicans, as only West Virginia is a red state.
But look a little deeper, and several key states that tipped the 2016 election for President Trump have barely had any population growth, putting them in jeopardy, too. Michigan, Pennsylvania and Mississippi could lose congressional seats as well. Their populations have grown less than 1 percent since 2010.
After 2010, eight states gained seats, and 10 lost. The power shifted to GOP-leaning states, but it’s not clear that will happen again. The migration to cities could also help Democrats this time around.
Several states have grown by over 10 percent from 2010 to 2016: Colorado, Florida, Texas and Utah. They stand to gain one — or even two — congressional seats, depending on how the Census 2020 results play out. Colorado and Florida are key swing states that have both seen a lot of immigration. There’s concern that immigrants might be hesitant to participate in the 2020 Census and give their data to the government.
Wilbur Ross, President Trump’s commerce secretary, oversees the Census Bureau. Ross is going in person Thursday to ask Congress for a lot more funding for testing the online census platform and doing outreach to educate people and assure them that their data is safe. The 2010 Census cost $12.1 billion. He’s asking for $15.6 billion. Ross, who actually worked for the census briefly in his college days, seems to understand what’s at stake if the funding doesn’t come through.
“The Census Bureau is committed to assuring a full, fair, and accurate count,” Ross told The Washington Post in a statement last week.
We’ll know soon whether congressional Republicans are committed to that as well. Alabama Republicans are already worried, and they aren’t even the most likely to lose out.
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