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For Some States, Keeping Congress Seats Comes Down To The Wire

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The first results of the 2020 census revealed some astonishing numbers this week. The national count is used to determine how many seats in Congress each state receives for the next decade. New York has lost one of its seats. That would not have happened if the state's census counts included just 89 more residents. But as NPR's Hansi Lo Wang reports, there was an even smaller number in another state that made a big difference.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: This week, Minnesota's state demographer, Susan Brower, finally got the numbers she has spent years waiting for.

SUSAN BROWER: I didn't expect to be as nervous as I eventually was as they were unveiling these numbers.

WANG: Based on those counts, Brower learned Minnesota is not losing any of the eight seats it currently has in the U.S. House of Representatives. After doing some math...

BROWER: We found that had Minnesota counted 26 fewer residents, that we would have lost that eighth congressional district.

WANG: I mean, what went through your mind when you saw 26?

BROWER: (Laughter) I knew it was going to be very tight, but I just didn't think it could possibly come out to be that close.

WANG: In fact, it was the closest margin ever recorded since Congress approved, after the 1940 head count, the current formula for turning each state's numbers into a system for reallocating 435 seats in the House once a decade. Each state gets at least one seat, and then...

BROWER: Our population total puts us into a priority ranking, and seats are doled out one by one.

WANG: New York could've beaten Minnesota's ranking and ended up keeping all of its seats if its numbers included 89 more residents...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANDREW CUOMO: Do I think it was accurate to within 89? No.

WANG: ...A result that drew skepticism this week from New York's governor, Andrew Cuomo.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CUOMO: And we're looking at legal options because when you're talking about 89, I mean, you - that could be a minor mistake in counting, right?

ARTURO VARGAS: But at this point, we actually know very little about the accuracy of the overall count.

WANG: Arturo Vargas is a CEO of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund and has served on one of the Census Bureau's committees of outside advisers. Vargas says to really understand what the count may have gotten wrong, we'll have to wait for more data to come out in the coming months. Still, Vargas adds, we do know that the bureau has struggled decade after decade with getting complete and accurate counts of people of color, people with lower incomes, immigrants.

VARGAS: All those populations historically have been undercounted as compared to populations that are white, wealthier and higher educated.

WANG: And COVID-19 plus the Trump administration's failed push for a citizenship question and last-minute decision to cut short counting have left a lot of people wondering, who is missing in the 2020 census numbers?

VARGAS: I would hope that the public continues to ask questions in the months and years ahead. We all need to now start thinking about, how do we improve upon 2020 so that there is a better count in 2030?

WANG: And counting for the next census may rely less on the form some households may be used to filling out and more on government records. Still, demographer Susan Brower notes that Minnesota's households completed last year's census on their own at the highest rate out of all the states. To try to motivate others to participate, Brower used to repeat the state's margin after the 2010 census.

You used to say 8,000.

BROWER: (Laughter) That's right. That's right. We used to say just over 8,000. And now we'll be almost counting on our hands.

WANG: Five hands and one finger, to be exact, for the 26 Minnesotans who, in 2020, made all the difference.

Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SURPRISE CHEF'S "ALL NEWS IS GOOD NEWS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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