Before the last vote is cast, before the first speech is made, before the lines are drawn, it is the U.S. Census that dictates the topography of American democracy.
That was one of many observations made regarding the 2020 Census and its ramifications for Minnesota, according to state lawmakers state Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, and state Rep. Mike Nelson, DFL-Brooklyn Park. The two were guest speakers for the virtual Rosenmeier Forum titled "The U.S. Census: Its Impact on Legislative Redistricting and Congressional Reapportionment" on April 6.
The public also is invited to participate in the upcoming virtual Rosenmeier Forum on Monday, April 19, when meteorologist Paul Douglas and climatologist Mark Seeley will speak on the weather and the link to climate change. The dual presentations are titled “The Climate Conundrum: Threats and Opportunities for Minnesota’s North Woods.” They’ll discuss weather/climate risks in Minnesota and opportunities for resilience and renewal. To attend the forum, send an email to email@example.com.
While the U.S. Census is often seen as something little more than a national tradition that comes every decade, its vital role in the ongoing continuation of the world’s oldest current democracy cannot be understated, said Kiffmeyer and Nelson, who were billed as leading experts on the topic for the virtual event.
Perhaps most notably, officials use demographic data gleaned by the U.S. Census to determine how many U.S. House seats go to each state and, as such, it’s importance to the state of Minnesota is especially pronounced. Minnesota is the only state in the Midwest that hasn’t lost any Congressional seats since the 1960s, while it narrowly avoided losing its 8th Congressional District during the 2010 Census and was awarded the final 535th seat. Currently, congressional districts in Minnesota have a population of about 690,000, while losing a seat would enlarge the remaining districts up to 780,000 or possibly more.
Again, in 2020, the Minnesota 8th Congressional District is on the bubble, Kiffmeyer said. As the state awaits the results of last year’s count, millions in federal funding for education, infrastructure, health care, and more is on the line if the state has to divide its constituencies among seven, not eight districts. The U.S. Census also will have a significant role in how the state draws its own Minnesota House and Minnesota Senate districts.
“An important part about this is we want to make sure that it’s one person, one vote. That everybody's vote counts the same,” said Nelson, who noted that three of the last four statewide maps have been arbitrated in court after lawmakers were unable to find a resolution in the state Legislature. “If you had districts that were way out of proportion, your vote would be watered down. That’s why we’re redistricting.”
However, that process has been delayed by COVID-19. The results of the 2020 Census, Kiffmeyer said, which was complicated by safety measures to limit the pandemic, still haven’t been released and that means lawmakers don’t have invaluable residency data to reference as they redraw the state’s local, state and federal district lines. Nelson noted the current deadline for publishing results is Sept. 30, which could put tremendous pressure on lawmakers to redraw the districts before the 2022 election and likely requires a special session.
This has something of a domino effect, Kiffmeyer added, in that it leaves lawmakers with less time to hash out the complicated process of redrawing districts so they’re equal in terms of population, honor historical political boundaries, preserve communities, and other stipulations that lawmakers adhere to and courts supervise. As such, the slower data rollout means the new district map will likely go back to the courts, as it often has in recent decades.
“It puts the states in a real issue,” said Kiffmeyer, who noted census takers are concerned that fears of transmitting COVID-19 may skew counts so it appears the state has a smaller population than it actually does. “The matters that are at stake here are really critically important. Both parties have a vested interest in the outcome.”
Kiffmeyer also observed that nonpartisan commissions — a popular alternative to legislative-drawn district maps — have a history of taking the matter to the courts at a frequency equal or even exceeding legislatures, so they’re not the comprehensive solution many seek to alleviate partisan gamesmanship in the capital.