A New Census Will Trigger Some Old Battles

Census taker interviewing a resident. i

In this Library of Congress photo taken between 1909 and 1932, a census-taker visits a home to gather data about a family. Then, as now, the census numbers affected the number of House members given to each state. Library of Congress hide caption

itoggle caption Library of Congress
Census taker interviewing a resident.

In this Library of Congress photo taken between 1909 and 1932, a census-taker visits a home to gather data about a family. Then, as now, the census numbers affected the number of House members given to each state.

Library of Congress

As census workers prepare to collect data this year on an estimated 308 million Americans, politicians are getting ready to re-wage some old battles, with seats in Congress and billions in federal funds at stake.

Local and federal officials have been holding "census kickoff" events around the country for weeks, and with good reason: The census is more than just an official head count. It also will be used to dole out House seats in time for the 2012 election, with some states getting more seats and others likely to lose representatives. Texas could gain four congressional seats on top of the 32 it already holds, while Ohio could lose two of its 18 seats, according to Polidata, a political data analysis firm.

The major demographic themes of the past few census counts are likely to remain largely intact, experts say, as the population growth in Southern and Western states outpaces the Rust Belt and East Coast.

But even the most optimistic estimates for California predict it will remain static for the first time since 1850, when it became a state. Some forecasts even have it losing a seat.

In California "the bloom is off the rose," says Polidata's Clark Benson. The state has "had a little in-migration, but they've had a lot of out-migration."

"The whole trick here is the pace of population growth," he says. "It's not enough to gain people. You've got to do it at a faster pace than other states."

The bottom line is that while California is still growing, it's not growing as fast as some other states, Benson says.

Larry Sabato, the director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, also thinks California will neither lose nor gain seats, but he said if the state doesn't do well in "ferreting out its Hispanic population," it could lose a seat.

Meanwhile, all eyes are on "the real megapowerhouse" of Texas, Sabato says. At first glance, the likely addition of three or four seats in such a solid red state should be good news for Republicans, who currently hold every statewide office and both houses of the state Legislature.

But redrawing congressional districts is the job of legislatures and governors, so the results of 2010 state elections are crucial. Of the governorships, 37 are up for grabs this year and most of them will be open seats, thanks largely to term-limited incumbents, such as California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. An additional 5,000 or so state legislative seats will also be in play.

It's rare, however, for the party in control of the White House to improve its position in the states in midterm years, says Tim Storey, a senior fellow at the National Conference of State Legislatures, a bipartisan organization that serves state legislators. Only during President Franklin Roosevelt's tenure and again in 2002, which he attributes mainly to the "9/11 effect," has that trend been bucked.

"It's a really solid trend and one that concerns Democrats this time around, especially with control of redistricting on the table," Storey says.

Even so, "Democrats might still be able to play a major role in line drawing and thwart complete GOP control of the process if they can win just two seats in the Texas House," he acknowledges.

There's also no guarantee that newly created districts in Texas, for example, will go to Republicans, says Sabato, who believes two of the projected four new districts will be heavily Hispanic and therefore likely to be won by Democrats. It is part of a larger trend set to ultimately turn Texas from a red state to a blue state sometime in the 2020s, he says.

By contrast to Texas, Ohio — a key swing state in presidential elections — could lose two seats, causing it "to lose some impact, but that doesn't mean it isn't still going to be a battleground," Benson says. The Midwest and Northeast are also projected to lose seats. New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Illinois, Iowa, Michigan and Minnesota — along with Louisiana in the South are all forecast by Polidata to lose one seat each.

What's more, Sabato contends, is that the exodus from California has spread Democratic voters to places such as Nevada, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico.

"California is bleeding Democrats and that is changing the political demographics in these other states," he says.

The NCSL's Storey says it's important not to overstate the power of the legislatures when it comes to redistricting. "There's something of a myth of gerrymandering. You have to draw districts where the population has grown, and you have to comply with many other states and federal laws and criteria."

The census is about more than just electoral politics. It's also about how and where $400 billion in federal money is spent. That's where problems of undercounting minorities and immigrants, both legal and otherwise, could have the most impact, says Andrew Reamer, a political analyst at the Brookings Institution.

"As undocumented residents receive public services, governments could be shortchanged with a less than accurate count," Reamer says.

Thanks to improvements in the process, the count has been getting much more accurate, according to Storey and others. In the past few decades, the involvement of community outreach groups to help track down hard-to-find respondents has helped tremendously, he says.

"Is it ever going to be perfect? No. They never find everybody and sometimes they double-count," he says. "But, given the task at hand, I think the process is extraordinarily accurate."

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