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Press Release · October 9, 2018

Vulnerability to Census Undercount Could Cost State a House Seat


SAN FRANCISCO, October 9, 2018 —California could easily lose one of its 53 seats in the House of Representatives if the 2020 Census does a poor job reaching residents who are traditionally hard to count, according to a report released today by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC). The state is particularly vulnerable to an undercount: three in four residents belong to at least one of the populations that are historically undercounted: children, young men, Latinos, African Americans, and renters.

The report looks at population trends and research on past undercounts to examine plausible scenarios for 2020. It finds:

  • Given current population growth and a census as accurate as the count in 2010—the most accurate to date—California is on track to keep its 53 seats in the House. The state is unlikely to gain a representative, while faster-growing states like Oregon, Arizona, and Texas will probably do so.
  • If the 2020 Census does a poor job reaching hard-to-count residents—as the 1990 Census did—and also has trouble counting undocumented immigrants, more than 1.6 million Californians could be missed and the state could easily lose a seat. In addition to the challenge of counting its large historically undercounted populations, California faces the same issues that are increasing the likelihood of an undercount nationwide: inadequate funding and fears among immigrant communities that they may be deported or otherwise targeted by the government if they respond to the census.
  • An undercount could affect how congressional and state legislative district boundaries are drawn within California, shifting representation away from poorer areas with larger communities of color and toward areas that are wealthier and less racially and ethnically diverse. Many parts of the state that are projected to have the greatest population growth—including the San Joaquin Valley and Inland Empire—are also projected to be disproportionately undercounted. PPIC’s interactive census maps show both historically undercounted populations and additional groups that may be hard to count in 2020.

There are major concerns about the accuracy of the 2020 Census. Privacy concerns have been driving response rates down in many surveys, making the census more difficult to conduct and more costly. Today’s political climate is likely to exacerbate those concerns, especially now that the federal government has decided to add a question on citizenship status to the census. Moreover, the 2020 Census is significantly different from its predecessors: it will be the first to collect a majority of responses online. This is a change that requires extensive testing. While the Census Bureau is testing the computer systems that will support the Internet survey, it lacks the resources to test outreach. Taken together, these challenges are of particular concern for California because historically undercounted groups make up a greater share of the state’s population than they did in 2010.

The report notes that state and local governments and community organizations have an important role to play in ensuring an accurate count. The state has allocated $90.3 million for census outreach.

“There are many political and practical challenges to ensuring an accurate census in 2020, but the state is far from powerless to control its fate,” said Eric McGhee, PPIC research fellow and a coauthor of the report. “Vigorous outreach to inform residents about the importance of the census and the security of the information they share will go a long way to ensure that every Californian is counted.”

The report, The 2020 Census and Political Representation in California, is coauthored by Sarah Bohn, PPIC research director and senior fellow, and Tess Thorman, PPIC research associate.

This research is supported with funding from the California Community Foundation, the California Endowment, the California Health Care Foundation, and Silicon Valley Community Foundation.

About PPIC

The Public Policy Institute of California is dedicated to informing and improving public policy in California through independent, objective, nonpartisan research. We are a public charity. We do not take or support positions on any ballot measure or on any local, state, or federal legislation, nor do we endorse, support, or oppose any political parties or candidates for public office. Research publications reflect the views of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of our funders or of the staff, officers, advisory councils, or board of directors of the Public Policy Institute of California.