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Political Ramifications Show Importance Of Filling Out Census Form


The first results of the 2020 census finally came out yesterday. They told us which states gained or lost seats in Congress, and there was some unexpected news.


KRISTIN KOSLAP: If New York had had 89 more people, they would have received one more seat.

KING: That is U.S. Census Bureau official Kristin Koslap talking at a press conference.


KOSLAP: The last seat went to Minnesota, and New York was next in line.

KING: New York is one of seven states that lost a seat. NPR national correspondent Hansi Lo Wang tells us what might be next.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: It's the day after the first 2020 census numbers are out, and Beth Jarosz, a demographer with a nonprofit research group called the Population Reference Bureau, says...

BETH JAROSZ: There are probably 89 people just in Manhattan who are thinking, man, if I had just responded to my census.

WANG: Jarosz says there's a lesson, not just for New Yorkers, but for everyone living in the U.S.

JAROSZ: I think if you ever questioned whether or not it was important to fill out that form and be counted, this absolutely answers that, without a doubt. It is important that every single person be counted.

WANG: Small numbers can make a big difference when you're talking about the national headcount. After the 1970 census, Oregon missed getting one more seat because it needed about 230 more people. So when Jarosz heard that New York only needed another 89?

JAROSZ: So the first thing was shock. And the second thought, if I am perfectly honest, is I suspect New York is going to challenge the census results.

WANG: Jarosz says New York would not be the first state in history to file a lawsuit over how House seats have been reallocated using the latest census results. Over the decades, it's become a go-to option for some states that have lost political clout after the headcount. But it might be a while before we see any court action from a state that's lost a congressional seat. That's because the bureau is still months away from releasing more detailed data in August that census experts say will tell us more about how well the count turned out.

MADIBA DENNIE: Any legal challenge to the apportionment results at this point is sort of based on an unfounded assumption that states are losing out on something that they should be gaining.

WANG: Madiba Dennie, an attorney with the democracy program at the Brennan Center for Justice, has been following the 2020 census.

DENNIE: And it will be very difficult to make that assessment at this point without actually assessing the quality of the data.

WANG: There are a lot of questions about how accurate the new census numbers are. The 2020 census was faced with the pandemic, wildfires, hurricanes and interference by Trump officials, who cut short the time for counting. Still, for New Yorker Jan Vink of Cornell University's Program on Applied Demographics, the latest census numbers for his state weren't all bad news.

JAN VINK: When I heard that New York had over 20 million people counted, I was happy (laughter).

WANG: The numbers were higher than some people predicted.

VINK: Yes, only just not high enough (laughter).

WANG: Eighty-nine more people may have saved New York from losing one seat, but Vink says he was worried his state would lose two seats.

VINK: We are not growing as fast as the country, so we're not keeping up. If you don't keep up, then you're at risk of losing a seat.

WANG: In fact, New York has been losing at least one a decade, beginning with the 1950 census.

Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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