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With political clout on the line, Minnesota prepares for 2020 census

December 15, 2018

In an urgent effort to protect the state’s political leverage, Minnesotans are already racing to find and count every resident in the 2020 census.

The result will determine whether the state will lose one of its eight U.S. House seats, which would dilute its clout on Capitol Hill and Minnesota’s role in presidential elections.

Community groups are brainstorming ways to raise awareness. Workshops have been held across the state and more are scheduled. Address lists have been updated. The Census Bureau is hiring thousands of people here to help.

And in the next few weeks, the Legislature will tackle bills that would shift the power to redraw congressional districts from lawmakers to an appointed commission.

Minnesota barely retained its eight congressional districts after the 2010 census, state demographer Susan Brower said, and “we’re hovering right around that mark again. … It’s very, very close.”

Subtracting a U.S. House seat “would be really painful,” said DFL Party Chairman Ken Martin. AARP Minnesota director Will Phillips said it’s vital that policy is decided in Washington by as many people as possible who “are using the lens of Minnesota.”

The state also would forfeit one of its 10 Electoral College votes; each state’s allotment of the 538 electors equals the number of its House members plus its two U.S. senators.

Census data is used to calculate federal spending on infrastructure, school lunches and many other programs. The state could miss out on $15,000 in federal funds over a decade for each uncounted resident.

If reapportionment of 435 U.S. House seats occurred now, Minnesota would end up with seven, said Kimball Brace of Election Data Services, a Virginia consulting firm. “Minnesota is on the wrong side of the cutoff mark,” he said.

New population estimates that will be released by the U.S. Census Bureau this week will provide a clearer picture.

“Political power goes where the people are,” Brace said, and the current trend has been in place for almost 70 years: “People are heading south and they’re heading southwest.” Florida and Texas are among states that are expected to pick up U.S. House seats, while Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania also could lose them.

Redistricting ahead

If Minnesota’s U.S. House delegation shrinks, each of the remaining seven districts would have to absorb about 100,000 people to ensure that each has about the same number of residents, Brower said.

For example, boundaries of the Seventh District, the state’s largest with more than 31,000 square miles, would expand to encompass more residents. The Fifth District, by comparison, covers 124 square miles.

Even if Minnesota keeps its current congressional roster, population shifts will require adjustments to districts. The census doesn’t affect the total number of state legislators, but their districts’ borders also will be reconfigured.

Fluctuations in the estimates make it hard to project what will happen on Census Day, April 1, 2020, Brower said, but Minnesota has fared better than other Midwest states in terms of population growth.

Between 2016 and 2017, the state saw a net gain of about 8,000 people from other states, she said. Still, the Census Bureau tracked an estimated loss of 12,000 residents in 2015.

Minnesota once had 10 U.S. House seats, but lost one after the 1930 census. It lost another after the 1960 count.

After the 1960 census, two special sessions of the Legislature were needed to pass a redistricting plan. Thirty years earlier, there was no deal in time for the next election, so Minnesota’s U.S. House candidates ran statewide.

After more recent counts, redistricting plans were decided by the state Supreme Court because the Legislature failed to pass one or the governor vetoed it. That’s the impetus for bills — likely to be introduced next month — that would create a bipartisan commission to advise the Legislature on boundaries.

That approach would mean “consistency, greater transparency, accountability and direct [citizen] participation,” said Annastacia Belladonna-Carrera, the executive director of Common Cause Minnesota. She’s working on legislation that would give citizens eight of 13 seats on such a panel.

State Rep. Jennifer Schultz, a Duluth Democrat, will revive a proposal she introduced in the last session for a commission led by retired judges. “I’ve seen so many people advocate for this in our state — just grassroots advocacy,” she said.

Eric Magnuson, a former state Supreme Court chief justice who represented the Legislature’s Republicans in the last redistricting battle, thinks a commission could keep the process out of court.

“We may be moving, at least in Minnesota, to an era where there’s a more overt attempt to get along. The politics of absolutism, I hope, may have hit their peak,” he said.

State Rep. Dan Fabian, a Republican from Roseau, was a member of a House redistricting committee after the 2010 census. He’s willing to consider commission ideas, but he has questions: “Who appoints the independent commission? If I’m one of the people who’s going to be appointing, how do I determine neutrality?”

State Rep. Sarah Anderson, R-Plymouth, in the last session suggested a commission made up of legislators, most of them from the party that’s in control at the time. Anderson, who lost her re-election bid, said lawmakers should lead the remapping process. “They know the districts and territory better than anybody else,” she said.

California and Arizona are among states that now use independent commissions to draw redistricting maps.

The goal is to avoid gerrymandering — oddly shaped districts meant to give one political party an advantage. Gerrymandering in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania recently led to court challenges.

Colorado, Michigan and Utah voters last month passed plans for redistricting commissions, and Missouri voted to hire a state demographer to revise boundaries. In May, Ohio voters approved a constitutional amendment banning partisan gerrymandering.

Outreach starts early

The political implications of the 2020 census are one reason there’s already a massive outreach campaign — 472 days before the official count.

“It’s a big project, so there is a several-year ramp up,” said Rachel Walker, policy analysis manager for the League of Minnesota Cities. It sponsors census workshops and webinars with the Association of Minnesota Counties.

Communities and governments statewide are creating Complete Count Committees to help spread the word.

Ramsey County employee Jolie Wood and Toni Newborn, who works for the city of St. Paul, held the first meeting of theirs in October. Members include businesses, libraries, colleges and philanthropic and faith-based groups.

They hope to ensure that residents who are often missed by the census — low-income communities, people of color, young people, students and renters — participate.

Immigrants who are already wary of the government are a top concern because a citizenship question was added to the census by the Trump administration. Its inclusion is being fought in federal court.

Wood and Newborn are optimistic so far. “People really do respond to the feeling that if they don’t participate … it has negative effects for their communities,” Wood said.

Brower said the state is applying a lesson from 2010: “Almost across the board, we didn’t start early enough.”

Judy Keen • 612-673-4234

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