The Real Census News: The GOP’s Self-Sabotage

An American flag made out of individual red, white and blue houses

According to census figures released earlier this week, the population of America is 331,449,281. 

That number is almost certainly wrong. 

The census always gets it wrong. It’s one of the defining features of our constitutionally mandated, once-per-decade count. Some years are worse (demography buffs speak about the 1990 census the way film buffs speak about Waterworld.)  Some are better (2010 is widely acknowledged to have gone quite well). But no census is perfect. 2020 was no exception. 

What is new, however, is the extent to which Republican politicians are willing to sabotage the census — and their own states’ interests — in order to help the GOP seize power nationwide. That, far more than the population figures or state-by-state apportionment of congressional representatives, is the big story of this week’s census data release. 

In other words, the reddest of red states were willing to lose their overall political power in Congress, votes in the Electoral College, and tens of millions of dollars in federal funding — just so long as those losses disproportionately fell on their Democratic residents. 

For decades, the census has been one of many American institutions whose structural flaws disproportionately harm Democrats. Non-white Americans are less likely to be counted, particularly if they rent rather than own their homes or don’t have access to the internet. White Americans, on the other hand, are more likely to be counted twice. (Imagine, purely hypothetically, an impatient billionaire who fills out his family’s census forms at the country club he owns in Palm Beach without realizing his wife — with whom he’s hardly on speaking terms — has filled out the same forms at their primary residence in downtown D.C.)  

In other words, just because it’s impossible to count everyone doesn’t mean that everyone is equally difficult to count. The census overlooks more likely Democrats than likely Republicans. The worse the census, the bigger the gap. 

The Framers who included the census mandate in the Constitution didn’t anticipate this problem, because they didn’t anticipate a two-party system. But they did imagine a Republic whose central feature — federalism — could serve as a counterweight to nationwide partisanship. When they imagined fights over political power, they envisioned clashes between states. And population equals power: more representatives in Congress, more electoral votes, more federal funding. In theory, then, each state should want to conduct the most complete census possible. The incentives push states to do everything possible to limit their undercounts.

In some states, those incentives are still in place. New York made a Herculean effort to boost 2020 census participation, one reason why it stands to lose just one seat in Congress instead of a projected two. In fact, New York came just 89 census takers short of losing none at all. California, similarly hoping to cut its losses, spent more than $100 million on outreach to its residents, encouraging them to be counted. 

If we still had the kind of country our Framers envisioned, every state, fearful of being outmuscled by its neighbors, would have followed suit. But that’s not what happened. In fact, some states — all Republican controlled — did the opposite. In places like Texas, Florida and Arizona, many local and statewide officials supported the Trump Administration’s unconstitutional attempt to add a citizenship question to the census, even though the people most likely to be deterred by such a question live disproportionately in those states. The Florida GOP underfunded census outreach. Texas loves to brag about big-ness, and dump on California, yet the Lone Star State’s outreach campaign operated on what the New York Times described as “a shoestring.” 

In fact, as the Times reported, even before the pandemic hit, 24 states were not planning to spend a single dime of their own money encouraging residents to sign up — and 17 of those 24 states were run entirely by Republican politicians. 

In other words, the reddest of red states were willing to lose their overall political power in Congress, votes in the Electoral College, and tens of millions of dollars in federal funding — just so long as those losses disproportionately fell on their Democratic residents. 

Their plan seems to have worked. Texas was supposed to gain three seats in Congress — it’s getting two. Florida’s getting one seat instead of two. Arizona’s getting zero instead of one. In a Republic defined by competition between the states, that would be a deep disappointment statewide. But Republican officials don’t seem all that disappointed. Instead, they’re waiting until this fall, when more detailed demographic data is released — and hoping that the lost seats are the result of a massive undercount of Hispanic voters. 

When politicians — even those from the putative party of states’ rights — put partisan leanings ahead of state pride, the problem goes well beyond the census. At the core of federalism is the idea that states will look out for their residents’ interests, even if Washington fails to. Instead, we’re seeing the opposite dynamic at play: red states happily sabotaging their own state interests, and the lives and rights of their own people, for the sake of a national political agenda. 

Rather than pine for a return to the era of all-politics-is-local, Democrats must use their majority in Congress to mitigate the damage as best they can. They should, where necessary, decouple federal funding from census population totals, instead using far more reliable statistical samples to estimate population counts. They should fully fund the 2030 census, and put more of the counting in the hands of career government officials, so that outreach campaigns reach all Americans and not just those living in blue states. 

Finally, they should pass the For The People Act, which, among its many provisions, would put independent commissions in charge of drawing the congressional map. An official who weakens his own state in order to secure a partisan advantage during the census is hardly going to play nice when it’s time to draw district lines later this year.

A country in which party so thoroughly trumps geography is not the Republic our Framers envisioned — but the 2020 census sabotage makes clear that it’s the Republic in which we now live. The question, to borrow Franklin’s famous phrase, is whether we’ll be able to keep it.

David Litt is a former Obama speechwriter and author of “Thanks, Obama: My Hopey Changey White House Years.” He is currently a head writer at Funny or Die.