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The 2020 Census and Political Representation in California

Mary Severance October 17, 2018
photo - People Crossing 5th Street in San Franciso

California’s political representation will be affected by the 2020 Census—but an accurate count is far from guaranteed. Inadequate funding and fear in the state’s large immigrant population are heightening concern about an undercount. At a briefing in Sacramento last week, PPIC researcher Eric McGhee outlined a new report that draws on population trends and research on past undercounts to develop plausible scenarios for 2020.

“I think it’s fair to say that we are unlikely to lose a congressional seat if there is an accurate count,” said McGhee. However, California is more vulnerable to an undercount than most other states. Three in four Californians belong to at least one of the populations that are difficult to count: children, young men, Latinos, African Americans, immigrants, and renters.

An undercount could cause the state to lose one of its 53 seats in the House of Representatives. It could also have an impact on political representation within California. If the state does a poor job of reaching hard-to-count populations, it might end up drawing congressional and state legislative districts that shift representation from poorer areas with larger communities of color to areas that are wealthier and less diverse.

Privacy concerns have increased both the difficulty and the cost of conducting census surveys. The current political climate is likely to exacerbate these concerns, especially now that a question on citizenship status has been added to the 2020 survey. (The addition is being contested in the courts.) Moreover, the 2020 Census will be the first to collect a majority of responses online. The Census Bureau is testing the Internet survey but lacks the resources to test outreach and follow-up. Because California has a disproportionate share of historically undercounted residents, these challenges are of particular concern.

But, as McGhee pointed out, “California’s fate is still in its own hands.” This year’s state budget allocates about $90 million for census outreach, which should help community organizations and state and local governments educate residents about the importance of the census and the security of the information collected. Californians need to know that “a better count in California could make a big difference.”

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