Despite growing concerns about an inaccurate count due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Census Bureau claims that 99.9% of households have been accounted for in the 2020 Census. Aside from the challenges faced because of the COVID-19 crisis, this Census garnered a lot of attention because it will determine the once-in-a-decade reapportionment of House seats. The results show power shifting: Texas will gain two seats, while Oregon, North Carolina, Colorado, Montana, and Florida will gain one. On the other hand, for the first time since its establishment as a state, California will lose a seat, along with Michigan, West Virginia, Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York, which notably lost its seat because of a shortfall of just 89 missing residents.
Despite the Census Bureau’s confidence that the results are accurate, many have concerns that different minority groups were undercounted in 2020. Trump’s controversial citizenship question may have deterred many undocumented people from responding to the Census, as they feared it could bring attention from law enforcement. The question was eventually barred by the Supreme Court, albeit not because of the question itself but the “contrived” reason given for it. Lackluster organization efforts in Texas, Florida, and Arizona have led to fears that these states undercut their large Latino populations. Unique challenges posed in bringing the Census to Native American populations left them undercounted by at least 5% in the 2010 count, and advocates fear that the pandemic has only worsened these obstacles in 2020.
The Importance of Federal Funding
The Census determines how around $1.5 trillion a year will be distributed over the next decade. Some have valued a single response at $4,000 per person. These funds go towards roads, schools, hospitals, and other vital public works. Many other entities like developers and businesses also take their cues from Census data when choosing where to build or invest. Less money per state also means less money per locality and can affect even the smallest of communities if counted incorrectly.
Despite the agency’s attempts to fix a history of undercutting minorities in Census counts, the pandemic threw a wrench in these plans. The way funds are distributed means that anyone missed in the count loses it to someone else, which can throw off efforts to address disparities in healthcare, policing, and other social programs. In Texas, Florida, and Arizona, over 40% of this Census-guided funding goes towards Medicare. These states also have a disproportionate number of undocumented migrant workers, a group of people who were likely affected by Trump’s citizenship question. Funding is not the only issue at stake in the wake of this Census: many advocates are equally if not more concerned about the impact of gerrymandering on the reapportionment.
Will the Reapportionment help the GOP?
Many have argued that the shift in House seats will unquestionably help the GOP, but the outcomes of the 2022 midterms are more complicated than that. It’s true that the Democrats have a remarkably slim majority in the House, but who will actually gain the most political windfall from reapportionment depends on how the redistricting lines are drawn.
In most states, it is up to the legislature to determine how these lines are redrawn. In California, the process is controlled by an independent commission, but because of the state’s heavy Democratic power base, Republicans will likely end up losing a seat. New York’s Democratic legislature would be responsible for reapportionment unless a redistricting amendment takes effect. Michigan and Montana also have non-partisan committees, and Democrats have a good shot at controlling the lines in Colorado and Oregon.
Gerrymandering, or the controversial practice of manipulating district maps to benefit one group or party, is the real issue behind many concerns surrounding reapportionment. Advocates estimate that over 188 million people are at risk of living under rigged maps for the next 10 years until the next round of reapportionment in 2030. In 33 states, politicians can control how maps are drawn, and in 26 states these maps can be drawn in secret.
Two recent court decisions have further exacerbated fears about fair and equal electoral maps: in Shelby County v. Holder, in 2013, many southern districts were released from historical oversight in the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The ruling determined that the decades-old “coverage criteria” was no longer valid, and while waiting for a new one many voter identification laws have been passed, restricting access to voting for many. In the ruling, Justice Roberts argued that the racial disparities in voter turnout were “no longer the case,” ignoring that voting disparities by race are still enormously prevalent.
In Rucho v. Common Cause, in 2019, the Supreme Court deferred two cases on partisan gerrymandering, claiming that it presented political issues “beyond the reach of the federal courts.” Justice Elena Kagan lambasted the decision, claiming the court “refuses to remedy a constitutional violation because it thinks the task beyond judicial capabilities.” Racial gerrymandering, however, is still up for legal debate, despite the setbacks by the recent legal decisions.
The GOP’s Overtake in 2022 is not Guaranteed
Recent legal decisions and census challenges pose a grave threat to the legitimacy of our representative democracy, but the GOP’s control of the House in 2022 is not assured. Like the unprecedented numbers that secured a Democratic victory in Georgia’s most recent election, awareness and high voter turnout could maintain a Democratic House. Nonprofits like represent.us and Common Cause are continuing to raise awareness about voters’ rights issues and the threat of gerrymandering, but it’s up to individual voters to turn up to the midterm elections.