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Here's How The 1st 2020 Census Results Changed Electoral College, House Seats

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Updated April 26, 2021 at 3:56 PM ET

Texas has gained two more votes in Congress and the Electoral College for the next decade, while Colorado, Florida, Montana, North Carolina and Oregon each gained one seat, based on the first set of results from the 2020 census, released Monday. The seven states losing one vote each are California, Illinois, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

The U.S. Census Bureau's acting director, Ron Jarmin, reported the new state population counts at a virtual news conference. The long-awaited announcement has reset the balance of power for the next decade in the House of Representatives and the Electoral College, where each state's share of votes is tied to its census numbers.

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The scramble for the last of the 435 seats for voting members in the House was remarkably close.

"If New York had had 89 more people, they would have received one more seat," said Kristin Koslap during the press conference. Koslap, senior technical expert on 2020 census congressional apportionment in the Census Bureau's Population Division, said instead that last seat went to Minnesota.

The results had been held up for months due to delays caused by the coronavirus pandemic and the Trump administration's interference last year. Under current federal law, these state population numbers were due by the end of 2020. But the bureau had been warning since April 2020 that census results would be delivered later than originally planned. A bipartisan group of lawmakers recently renewed a push in Congress to extend legal reporting deadlines formally for the 2020 count.

Last year's tally was the country's 24th census — a once-a-decade tradition required by the Constitution since 1790 — and it is the ninth count for which the U.S. government has attempted to include every person living in the country in the numbers used for reapportioning seats in Congress. Before the 1940 census, the phrase "excluding Indians not taxed" in the Constitution excluded some American Indians from the apportionment counts.

Here's what else you need to know:

Why did it take so long to get these census results?

COVID-19 forced the agency to postpone in-person counting for months, and the bureau's door knockers also had to contend with hurricanes and wildfires in some parts of the country. As NPR first reported, the census was further disrupted last July when the Trump administration decided to cut short the schedule for gathering census responses and running quality checks on the collected data. Extra time was needed, the bureau argued, to sort through a high volume of duplicate and incomplete responses.

Were people who died from COVID-19 last year counted in the census?

The census was intended to be a snapshot of the country's population as of Census Day (April 1, 2020), so it was not supposed to count U.S. residents who died before that date, according to the bureau's residence criteria. People who died on or after April 1 last year should have been counted.

Is there information about race, ethnicity, age and sex, as well as population numbers for counties, cities, towns and other smaller areas, in these census results?

No, this information will be released with the second set of 2020 census results. This more detailed demographic information is needed for the redrawing of voting districts. It's also used to guide the distribution of an estimated $1.5 trillion a year in federal money for Medicare, Medicaid, education and other public services for local communities.

When will that demographic data be released?

The bureau plans to start releasing this information by Aug. 16. New redistricting data was due to the states by the end of March. But the bureau said it is behind schedule on running quality checks after the Trump administration pressured it to prioritize the new state numbers that former President Donald Trump wanted to alter before leaving office.

The timing may change, however, depending on how two lawsuits turn out. Alabama and Ohio are asking the federal courts to force the bureau to put out this data by the end of July so they can meet their state redistricting deadlines. Alabama's lawsuit is also trying to stop the bureau from adopting a new technique, known as differential privacy, for keeping personal information in anonymized census data confidential. If Alabama wins, the data's release would be delayed by "multiple months" past August, the agency's chief scientist said in a recent court filing.

How accurate are these census numbers?

It will be difficult to say for certain immediately. The bureau's career officials have said the agency has not found anything in the data suggesting the census is not "fit for its constitutional and statutory purposes."

But no U.S. census has been perfect. The pandemic and Trump officials' last-minute changes to the schedule have heightened concerns about how well certain groups were counted, especially historically undercounted groups who are less likely to participate in the census unless they receive in-person visits from door knockers. The Trump administration's failed push for a citizenship question may also have further discouraged households with immigrants and people of color from getting counted.

For the first time, the bureau is releasing quality metrics at the national and state levels on the same day it puts out the first numbers. But census experts say metrics at a more detailed level are needed because the quality of the count can vary greatly from neighborhood to neighborhood.

Researchers with the American Statistical Association are conducting an independent audit of the count's quality, and they are set to release their first report in June. The Census Bureau is conducting its Post-Enumeration Survey to estimate how many people may have been missed as well as rates of overcounting and undercounting among racial and ethnic groups. Those results are not expected to start rolling out until December.

Can we redo the census?

It's not clear if state population numbers from a do-over can be used to redistribute seats in the House of Representatives — the count's main purpose as outlined by the Constitution. Federal law does allow for a "mid-decade census" in 2025, but the results can't be used for reapportioning the House. There's also a question about money: Would Congress be willing to fund another head count shortly after what's estimated to be the most costly census in U.S. history at $15.6 billion?

What happens next to the first census results?

These state population counts and the new assignment of House seats are part of a handoff process involving the commerce secretary overseeing the bureau, the president and Congress. Ultimately, the numbers are certified by the clerk of the House, who is then charged with officially reporting them to the states.

Some states that have lost seats may sue the Biden administration to challenge how the House was reapportioned, and that may change some states' new number of congressional districts before next year's midterm elections. The new Electoral College map, with votes based on each state's latest share of seats in Congress, goes into effect beginning with the 2024 presidential race.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: April 26, 2021 at 12:00 AM EDT
An earlier web and radio version of this story misattributed a quote from Kristin Koslap, senior technical expert on 2020 census congressional apportionment in the Census Bureau's Population Division, to Karen Battle, chief of the bureau's Population Division.