At the risk of overusing a phrase, the 2024 presidential election may be the most important — and perhaps the closest — in history. Last week’s Census Bureau announcement of serious errors will impact the next decade’s congressional apportionment and delegations, and play a crucial role in the presidential race. Given the nature of the mistakes, Democrats could hang onto the presidency under particularly controversial circumstances due to publicly-acknowledged errors.
The Census Bureau acknowledged that 14 states had significant miscounts in the 2020 census. See if you notice a pattern here: Among the overcounted states are Hawaii, Delaware, Rhode Island, Minnesota, New York and Massachusetts. Five of these six voted for Joe Biden in that year’s presidential election. The undercounted states were Texas, Illinois, Florida, Mississippi, Tennessee and Arkansas. Five of these six voted for Donald Trump.
The ability for any agency to accurately count each person in a nation of 330 million is a logistical challenge, to be sure. However, it is difficult to understand how the Census Bureau missed more than 5 percent of the populations of Arkansas, Delaware and Hawaii.
The changes will impact national politics in a dramatic fashion. The 2020 census led to significant changes to congressional seats apportioned to states. Texas gained two congressional seats, while North Carolina, Florida, Montana, Colorado and Oregon each gained one. New York, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, Michigan, Illinois and California each lost one seat in Congress. There was significant surprise that population growth winners such as Texas and Florida didn’t gain more seats. With the possible exception of Illinois not losing a seat, the likely effects of an accurate count would have overwhelmingly aided red states. Simply put, the revised figures show that (mostly) red states had even quicker relative population growth compared to the rest of the country — and especially compared to (mostly) blue states. It is entirely possible that undercounted states could have gained at least one seat in Congress, while overcounted states may have lost at least one each.
The error resulted in over 600,000 overcounted residents in New York and a similar amount undercounted in Texas. Last year, media coverage lamented that New York lost a member of Congress by being 89 residents short. With the revised, accurate numbers, New York may have lost a second seat — had the corrected numbers been available earlier. Considering that Republicans need to flip just five seats to retake Congress, each misplaced seat is crucial.
Had states known the true figures within the past year, the redistricting process would have been very different for the miscounted states. Not only are the number of seats per state affected, but the district lines are, as well. In addition, the Electoral College determines the weight per state based on the total representatives and senators. The loss or gain of a single seat affects two Electoral College votes — the one gained by one party, and thus lost by the other.
Furthermore, seat apportionments are based on relative growth — whether a state is growing compared to the other 49. The original 2020 figures showed New York’s population increasing by about 800,000 residents, to 20.2 million. Instead, the population remained effectively flat compared to 2010, at 19.5 million. Florida’s population jumped even more than counted originally, ballooning from 18.9 million in 2010 to 21.1 million — about a half-million more than originally estimated.
Can this blunder be corrected in time for either the midterms or the 2024 presidential election? Nope. The Supreme Court considered whether revised, more accurate numbers could be used for reapportionment in 1999 and determined that such differences could not be considered in congressional seat counts. The inaccurate 2020 figures will stand. Since almost every error benefited Democrats, the risk of undermining trust in the Census Bureau and the election is significant. The only potential life-preserver for the GOP is that the current Supreme Court could consider a challenge based on the accurate figure. As of now, no challenge exists — and the time to file one is rapidly running out.
Exact figures for how the correct population statistics would shift congressional apportionment are not available. But we can look directly at the initial 2020 seat allocation and population figures to make an educated guess. Census figures show that Florida and Texas were close to gaining a new seat. Had the top overcounted states lost one seat each and undercounted ones gained one each, Democratic-voting states would have lost nine-net seats in Congress and the same in the Electoral College. The prospect of nine votes in the Democratic column, that would have been in GOP hands, would represent a flip of almost 7 percent of the 270 needed to win the White House. That’s more than just a rounding error.
The consequences of the Census Bureau’s errors will further erode the public’s trust in our electoral system. And if we thought 2000 or 2020 were contentious elections, just wait until a candidate realizes that he or she could have won the White House if the national headcount were done correctly. The inability to change apportionment could spark a constitutional crisis at a time when the country cannot afford one.