With census count operations approaching an unclear end, attention turns to impending redistricting

Originally published Sept. 28, 2020 for The PLS Reporter, behind a paywall. 

James Moate has been trying to be creative to get the word out about the census. He’s a Cameron County Commissioner spearheading the area’s Complete Count Committee, which works to remind citizens to fill out the decennial count. 

“The unique challenge of a rural area [is] that you can drive for quite some time before you stumble upon a residence,” he said. “Also, there’s a lot of distrust of the government too I think. And so the Census Bureau being a government agency I think some of the resentment and whatnot.” 

The county had a 42.9 percent self-response rate on this year’s census, lower than the rate in 2010. 

Resources for encouraging census self-response are limited — the Cameron commission was allotted some promotional signs, but only seven for the nearly 400 square mile county. Still, Moate is working hard to spread the word; a video of him encouraging folks to “stand up and be counted” appeared on the children’s program Wonderama, and he’s been partnering with local restaurants to put census reminders in takeout boxes. 

“We are in a very unique situation in Cameron, where we have an aging population, and we have a lot of senior citizens that live here and many of those folks don’t typically get online,” Moate said. “So they do read and rely on the newspaper or the radio — which, again, we have utilized those avenues — but I mean it’s just been a crazy year. And for some of the counties that have had higher response rates, I commend them for their efforts, but for whatever reason, Cameron County residents just have not really, right now it doesn’t seem like they have really taken it as seriously as I would have liked them to have.” 

Despite the low self-response rate, the U.S. Census Bureau reports a 97 percent completion rate of its non-response follow up workload, which is the final operation that the Bureau undertakes to count those households that have yet to answer the census.

“I mean our response rate is very important because it literally affects all of our lives for the next decade,” Moate said.

Once, Only Once, and in the Right Place

The census has run into difficulty this year, with the coronavirus pandemic slowing down in-person counting efforts and sudden changes to federal guidance. The bureau was granted an extension for its non-response follow up counting — the process by which enumerators visit houses where residents have not yet responded to the census — which would have given enumerators until October to complete the follow up counts. 

However, earlier this month the Trump Administration decided to return to the original timeline for non-response follow ups, meaning counting efforts must end Sept. 30. An internal Census Bureau document obtained by NPR concluded that the truncated timeline increased the risk for serious errors in the national count results. Those counts are used to determine political representation districts as well as distribute nearly $1.5 trillion in federal funds annually. On Sept. 25, a federal court ruled that census operations should continue until their original Oct. 31 extension, though that decision may be overruled as the Trump Administration is seeking an appeal. 

Despite the pandemic’s interruption of normal census counting procedures, 98.4 percent of Pennsylvanians have been counted. Nearly 70 percent of those were self-respondents, households that filled out their census online or by mail and did not need to be followed up with. 

Still, while 98.4 percent seems like a very high number, there are pockets of the state where uncounted populations remain, like in rural or urban “hard-to-count” areas. In Philadelphia, for instance, 55.7 percent of people have responded to the census, and the Census Bureau’s non-response follow up workload completion is lagging behind the rest of the state, with a rate below 90 percent.

Census blocks show where populations live. When those numbers are inaccurate, funding that is based on population sizes may not reach everyone in a community that is undercounted, or political district lines may be drawn in such a way that reduces or inflates the power of certain groups because their population numbers are inaccurate. 

In the 1990s, Black and Hispanic Americans were significantly undercounted across the U.S. The Census Bureau estimated that Black and Hispanic Pennsylvanians were undercounted by 4.5 percent each, or 51,000 and nearly 11,000 people were missed, respectively. In Philadelphia alone, more than 28,000 Black residents were undercounted. That undercount, former Philadelphia deputy city planning commissioner David Baldinger was quoted as saying in a 2009 hearing, cost the city between $10 and $15 million annually. 

The city has concentrated so-called hard-to-count areas, where individuals may be difficult for the Census Bureau to locate and encourage to respond. Hard-to-count populations, the Bureau finds, may include young children, migrant families with citizenship concerns, language minorities, homeless or transitory populations, remote and rural areas and people with limited access to the internet. 

Carol Kuniholm, co-founder and chair of Fair Districts PA, says it’s precisely the hard-to-count areas that are most in need of accurate enumeration. She said that the politicization of the census has undercut the trust that communities have in the system. 

“Communities that are hardest to count, are now even more difficult to count because the trust level has been harmed with minority communities, immigrant communities, but also with rural communities who feel like you know, we don’t trust the government, and we don’t need the government,” Kuniholm said. “And yet, for rural communities in particular — in Pennsylvania, you know, a fourth of our counties are really considered rural counties — and those are really highly dependent on federal money…if they’re undercounted, then they lose that. So there’s these huge parts of our state that are going to be harmed financially by the politicization of this issue.”

Drawing the Lines

Fair Districts PA was founded in January 2016 by members of the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania. They’ve been pushing census participation this year as part of their bigger mission advocating for a more transparent, less gerrymandered redistricting process in the state.

Though the final census numbers won’t be completed until the end of the year, already Pennsylvania is expected to lose a seat in the House of Representatives during this reapportionment cycle, as it has each census for the last 90 years. 

Even though census officials and redistricting experts know that there are harder to count populations, and that undercounts can and do happen, once the census results are in, that’s the dataset for the next ten years, and it is the information that the state will use to draw both congressional and state-level legislative districts.

Except, Kuniholm says, for one area: prisons. When it comes time to redistrict, Kuniholm says, Pennsylvania could choose to count incarcerated people in the places they lived prior to incarceration, and therefore keep representation and funding in the disproportionately urban areas those individuals lived, rather in the largely rural areas where they are incarcerated.

“Some states have actually changed the rules within the state saying, you know, this is not appropriate that those people’s dollars end up going to the communities where they’re incarcerated rather than to their home communities, and their representation goes to the communities,” Kuniholm said. “So there was a great outcry that those rules would be changed, but the Census Bureau decided to leave it as is.”

The Census Bureau opted in 2018, despite receiving more than 77,000 public comments that incarcerated people should be counted at their previous residences, that a prison fit the definition of “usual residence” for the sake of counting. However, the Bureau also said they recognize some states will make the choice to “move” their prison populations, in terms of redistricting, to home districts, and will therefore provide data to states to help them do that.

The NAACP filed a lawsuit against the state on the same issue this year, saying that Pennsylvania’s prison population is disproportionately made up of Black and Latino people from urban cities, while prisons are largely located in white, rural areas, and as a result is inflating white rural representation while diluting the power of urban communities of color. Rep. Joanna McClinton (D-Philadelphia) authored a bill in 2019 to address the issue, but the bill has not made it out of committee.

Without movement on prison gerrymandering, the legislature’s redistricting efforts will be based on the census data delivered next year. Ahead of that process, legislators Wendi Thomas (R-Bucks) and Thomas Killion (R-Chester) introduced the Legislative and Congressional Redistricting Act (LACRA) in the House and Senate in order to make the redistricting process more transparent and open to the public.

That’s because the last redistricting process was fraught with partisan politics and limited opportunity for public oversight. Following the 2010 census, Pennsylvania lost a congressional seat and districts needed to be redrawn. At the time, Republicans controlled both chambers of the General Assembly, as well as the judicial and executive branches of state government, and the map that was drawn from that commission resulted in what NYU’s Brennan Center for Justice called one of the most partisan skews in its Extreme Maps report.

Following the 2012 election, the extent of the gerrymandering of that map became clear, when Democrats won 51 percent of the popular vote in the state, indicating a high level of support for Democratic candidates, but secured barely a quarter of U.S. House seats. The districts had been drawn in such a way to skew competitive races in favor of Republicans, and in 2017, the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania sued.

The state Supreme Court agreed that the districts as drawn were improper, and in January 2018 drew their own remedial map, which has been used since. In the 2018 election, each party took nine of the state’s 18 congressional seats, but with the anticipated loss of a House seat following this year’s census and a closely split state, redistricting could have a major impact on which party gets the upper hand. 

The suit concerned the congressional districts, but the state legislative district redrawing effort was not without its own challenges. The original map, as drawn by the Legislative Reapportionment Commission, was struck down by the state Supreme Court shortly after it was approved in late 2011 because it violated the state’s rules concerning compact districts and adherence to political subdivisions. The state continued to use its 2000 map for 2012 elections to give time to redraw the map, which was completed in 2013 and used for the first time in the 2014 elections.

“We want to make sure that doesn’t happen again, that citizens and legislators know they’re going to be held accountable for what they vote for, and that everybody has a chance to see those maps before there’s a vote,” Kuniholm said.

In the spring of 2019, an effort was made by Rep. Steve Samuelson and Killion to establish an independent redistricting committee to take over the legislative and congressional line-drawing process. Currently, the redistricting process is led by a group of five: the House and Senate Majority and Minority leaders, and a fifth person either agreed upon by that group or appointed by the Supreme Court. Samuelson’s bill would make the commission an 11-member group, with equal representation for each party and three independent members.

That bill, however, did not go through the legislative process in time to establish a commission ahead of the 2020 census and subsequent redistricting.

Thomas says she was very supportive of the independent commission, but when she realized it wasn’t going to get through, she drafted her LACRA bill to address as much of the public concern around redistricting as possible given the timeframe.

“You can hire professionals and there are a lot of tools out there to help you do it,” Thomas said. “But, you know, there could be a neighborhood that on a map looks like it’s just this one circle, but there’s a road that’s right next to it, not connected, but they actually consider themselves all one neighborhood. And in the case of schools, all those kids play together, live together, and they consider themselves a unit. If you don’t know that you could draw a line between that. The community and the public is the one who knows that; no computer system is going to know that.”

LACRA would require the Legislative Data Processing Committee to conduct open meetings, livestreamed for the public, and make time for public comments throughout the redistricting process. The bills would also require that the chair of the Legislative Reapportionment Committee not be someone who has held elected office or the spouse of someone in elected office, or themselves or spouse served as staff for a political party or lobbyist.

Thomas’s bill has not moved in the House, but she says she’s been working with leadership to get movement on the bill. Meanwhile, Killion’s Senate bill was first considered on Sept. 22, and has been set on the Senate Calendar for Oct. 5. Thomas said that if Killion’s bill can move through the process faster, she fully plans to support that legislation over her own.

Both bills have seen a fair amount of bipartisan co-sponsorship.

Kuniholm said that she has struggled to get Republican leadership on board with Fair District PA’s efforts, even as, she says, this year the redistricting process could favor Democrats. She says that with the way the redistricting commission is currently set up, and the likelihood that the state Supreme Court, which Republicans have frequently taken issue with, will choose the deciding member of the committee, it is in everyone’s best interest to make the process more open.

“We’ve tried to explain this to the Republican lawmakers and said, wouldn’t you really like to put some guardrails on this system before your Democratic colleagues have the final say in what your maps are going to be? And so far, they, they don’t seem to understand it, and they have not put those guardrails in place,” Kuniholm said.

“But we do know that there are Democrats who are quite cheerful about their opportunity to draw those maps and looking forward to people that they would draw off the map and looking forward to giving themselves and enjoying the majority, which is what the Republicans did the last two decades.”