The U.S. Census Bureau Released Some 2020 Census Results: What’s Next? | UB today
Last month, the US Census Bureau released detailed data for 2020 on demographic changes and a breakdown of the country’s racial and ethnic diversity. Among the main results: the United States has become more diverse than ever and the population of American metropolitan areas has increased by 9% between 2010 and 2020.
The data shows that the white population has shrunk for the first time in history. While the white population alone remained the largest racial or ethnic group (204.3 million people), it has decreased by 8.6% since 2010. On the other hand, the multiracial population (defined as two or more races ) increased by 276%, from 9 million in 2010 to 33.8 million in 2020. This may be due to a change in the way the census asked questions about ethnicity – people over a breed that chose white on previous census forms can now answer more accurately. The number of Americans who identify as Hispanic or Asian has also increased.
And after? Local governments are now working to ensure that political representation fairly reflects these population shifts, with the data being used to redraw congressional and state legislative boundaries. The redistricting battles will be watched closely until next year’s midterm elections.
One of the people paying close attention to the new census data is Maxwell Palmer, an associate professor of political science in the College of Arts and Sciences and a faculty member of BU’s Cities Initiative (IoC). He studies Congress, electoral institutions, and local politics, with a focus on the impact of institutions and rules on representation and political outcomes.
Palmer says the census is important for two important reasons: the all-important Electoral College and the distribution of federal funds. “We transfer electoral votes from some states to others,” he says. “And that matters a lot to federal funds. When the federal government tries to allocate funds, it often does so based on population. And so census data is really important for allocating billions and billions of dollars.
UB today spoke with Palmer about how the pandemic affected the census early on, how census data is likely to impact redistricting, and what we can expect to see in the months ahead.
With Maxwell Palmer
UB today: Much has been said about the difficulty of collecting data for the 2020 census. What were the biggest problems and what was the outcome?
Maxwell Palmer: Part of the 2020 census [data-gathering] took place in unprecedented circumstances. First, we had a series of attempts to change things by [Trump] administration, including adding a citizenship status question, and there was a Supreme Court case on that. In the end, the census was not changed.
The census was supposed to start in April, which was right at the start of the pandemic. And that made door-to-door collection really difficult; they were forced to extend the deadlines. And this data collection was more difficult than it had ever been before. A problem we also had was that people were moving to different places. For example, New York barely lost a seat in Congress, and it is possible that people moving, even temporarily, could have been enough to cause them to lose a seat in Congress.
UB today: You were the lead author of the IOC’s Menino 2020 Mayoral Survey, published last September. Can you tell us about what that revealed about the census?
Maxwell Palmer: In this survey, we asked mayors about the census, how they thought it was going, and what they were doing to make sure their towns were counted. They had a lot of concerns about minority populations, as well as the general count in general. They had a lot of approaches they took to try and get their account. I think it was a huge challenge last year. They were so focused on it because [the census] issues beyond redistricting. Redistricting is our big focus now, it’s going to take a lot of attention for the next six months and really through the next election.
UB today: One of the main results of the census shows that the American population is more racially diverse than ever and that the percentage of Americans identifying as mixed race has increased since 2010. Can you discuss these results?
Maxwell Palmer: We see the continuing trend of demographic change across the country. There’s been a lot of discussion about these trends and what it means for long-term demographics and long-term politics. I think one thing is that the way we think about white is fluid. How we defined white 100 years ago is very different from how we think of white today. And that will continue to change in the future as well, I think.
One thing that interests me, as someone who studies American politics, is the continued shift of populations south – with Florida and Texas getting more seats in Congress, other states in the Northeast and Midwest losing seats in Congress.
UB today: What is redistricting?
Maxwell Palmer: I work a lot on redistricting, both studying redistricting and [finding] different ways to reduce partisan gerrymandering in particular, and trying to measure gerrymandering. I also sometimes work for the courts on legal cases, trying to identify gerrymanders in disputes over racial gerrymandering.
This data released last month officially kicked off the redistricting. Some states had started earlier, because they were required to by law, but they couldn’t draw final maps until they had that final data. Each state has its own set of procedures. They must all draw new maps for congressional and state legislative districts. We’re also going to see new county commission maps and many local governments need to redraw, depending on their laws. We’re seeing a huge wave of it now, and it has very big implications for the franchise, for partisan politics, for representation.
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