Viewpoint: What if Texas lost a Congressional seat by 89 out of 20 million?

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Viewpoint: What if Texas lost a Congressional seat by 89 out of 20 million?
Karen Rubin, Columnist

Raise your hand if you believe that if Texas lost a Congressional seat and an Electoral College vote for the lack of 89 respondents in a once-a-decade Census in a population of 20 million, they would have demanded an audit, if not a complete do-over, to get the seat back.

But that’s what New York State should do: demand an audit, or in Census parlance, “Count Question Resolution.”

It is little comfort, as Jan Vink, extension associate at Cornell’s Program on Applied Demographics, noted, that based on 2019 figures, New York’s population was expected to be stagnant and therefore lose two seats, not just one.

Instead (and interestingly, despite the cap on SALT deductions that was expected to drive people out of New York), our population increased by 823,147 to 20,201,249; New York City’s population increased by 629,057 to a record 8,804,190 and Long island’s population grew 3.1 percent, to 2,921,694.

But this recorded growth is despite the multi-pronged sabotage of the 2020 Census by the Trump administration – beginning with the insidious attempt by the Commerce Department to discount noncitizens in violation of the Constitution’s mandate to count all residents (this ploy was aimed at “undocumented” immigrants, but how would a census determine if a non-citizen was undocumented?), then make no effort whatsoever to promote participation in the Census (the state and county did pretty good job of outreach) especially in light of the pandemic, and that after a delayed start to the in-person door-knocks, Trump tried to shorten the deadline to collect responses. Confusion reigned.

There are those who will argue there is no way to know how many undocumented immigrants were too frightened to fill out the Census, distrusting the Census Bureau’s “assurance” that personal information gathered could not be used for their arrest and expulsion. You would need to have only 89 skeptics to cost New York a Congressional seat.

But most significantly, it is important to take into account the fact that the Census is based on asking where you were living on April 1.

Recall that on April 1, the global epicenter of the coronavirus was New York City and New York State – not Texas or Florida which were smug about New York’s tragic predicament. People were fleeing New York City’s lockdown, losing jobs and leaving their expensive rentals very probably to move back with family.

Just 89 such people filling out the census who had fled out-of-state by April 1, not knowing if they would return, would have been sufficient to cost the state a Congressional seat.

The Census office had trouble hiring in-person census-takers and then delayed sending them out. People were too nervous to open a door to a census-taker. The regional office dismissed this at the time, saying they had some kind of data blueprint of who was living where, and could make up the difference with an algorithm (“operational quality metrics”).

Remember, we are talking 89 responses out of 20 million, a statistical non-number.

Last September, with just two more weeks for Census collection to go, Jeff T. Behler, the U.S. Census Bureau regional director for N.Y., N.J. and New England (accounting for one-eighth of total US population) acknowledged certain high-minority population areas were still significantly under-represented: Elmont, 52.5 percent; Hempstead, 48.8 percent; New Cassel, 50.3 percent; Roosevelt, 53.8 percent.

Collection efforts, he acknowledged, were hampered by COVID – the libraries, churches and other places where Census might set up laptop stations to have people record their data –were closed, and yes, many people evacuated.

“Our job is to count everyone, once and only once and in the right place, per the Constitution, everyone living in the U.S.,” Behler said then. “We go to the furthest ends. We find the partners who understand that and want to support us. We provide mobile assistance, set up tablets at food distribution sites, COVID testing sites, so as people wait in line, we ask if they have filled out the census, and ‘Let me tell you why it is important’.”

But, he insisted, “I‘m confident for the region that we can get to 100 percent by the end of September. We have more than enough resources. There aren’t any communities we can’t get in because of COVID or wildfires or emergencies nationwide. We know what’s at stake. We are moving resources around where needed, getting people to where we need doorknockers the most. We have an amazing partner network who talk up the importance of being counted, even if undocumented, and that the personal or household information can’t be released to anyone at any time. It’s important we get it right, that the people who make the important decisions have the best possible data.”

But what effort was made to know that they did, in fact, “get it right”?

Indeed, how do you calculate a negative – the number of New Yorkers who were displaced who did not mark down New York as their residence, or the number of undocumented immigrants too frightened to participate?

Here’s how: You can have people who are trusted by the community simply ask if people either did not fill out the census as living in New York on April 1 because they had temporarily relocated, or did not fill it out because they were concerned about how the Census would be used. You would need only 89 of those people for New York to lose a Congressional seat, based on the method of “equal proportions” – a historically low number to lose a congressional seat by.

It is mind-boggling to me that no one has questioned the efficacy of the Census, even after a New York Times article disclosed Trump’s attempt to politicize this Constitutional requirement, just as he attempted to overturn all the other institutions so foundational to our democratic republic (“How the Census Bureau Stood Up to Donald Trump’s Meddling,” August 12, 2021).

The Census Bureau stands by its “operational quality metrics,” I was told, which again, are based on a mathematical formula, and not take into account the extraordinary circumstance of a pandemic.

Actually, there is a process for a state to challenge – or question – the Census figures. It’s called the CQR – count question resolution program – where the state could provide data that would show the population figures more accurately. But here’s the rub: Even if New York proved 100 or 1,000 more population, there apparently is no provision for a do-over with Congressional apportionment; at best, New York will get a fairer share of funding over the decade. So tough noogies.

For a shortfall of 89 responses, New York State is losing a representative in Congress and in the Electoral College. Just imagine if that happened to Texas and if Trump were still in office, Texas would have gotten it and likely the Congressional seat back, too.

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