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Minnesota has a lot on the line in 2020 census

“We get this one chance to get this count right,” state demographer Susan Brower says of the 2020 census. Jean Pieri / St. Paul Pioneer Press

ST. PAUL -- It has been called the largest peacetime mobilization in the country.

It will dictate how much federal money comes to Minnesota.

And it will determine the state’s political influence for the foreseeable future.

There is a lot at stake for Minnesota in the 2020 census, which is a little more than a year away. Getting an accurate tally isn’t just the work of the U.S. Census Bureau. State officials, local governments and even nonprofits are organizing and coordinating to count every resident.

“It is a tremendous undertaking,” said state demographer Susan Brower. “The census is used for so many things that it’s really hard to overstate how important it is. It’s kind of woven into the way that our democracy works.”

The Minnesota demographer’s office is leading the state’s effort to assure a full count. Brower is updating address lists for the Census Bureau and holding workshops to prepare cities and counties.

Those cities and counties are forming their own “complete count committees” to alert residents, including those who have historically been harder to reach. And the Census Bureau says it is recruiting thousands of Minnesotans to make sure the census goes smoothly.

Statewide impact

More than 85 percent of Minnesotans mailed back their census ballots in 2010, according to the Census Bureau. Census workers followed up in person to count the remaining residents. The next census will feature online submissions for the first time.

Federal dollars are on the line in the upcoming count. Almost $8.5 billion per year is allocated to Minnesota based on census data. That comes out to about $1,500 per person per year.

To put it simply, the state could lose $15,000 for each uncounted resident over the decade. The money covers everything from Medicaid and Medicare to food stamps to highway planning and construction.

Minnesota cities also have a stake in making sure every resident is counted.

Local governments use census data to plan for economic development and infrastructure improvements, said Rachel Walker, policy analysis manager for the League of Minnesota Cities.

And cities get state aid from the Minnesota Department of Revenue based, in part, on their census numbers. St. Paul will get just over $65 million in local government aid in 2019.

Leaving no one out

The city of St. Paul and Ramsey County joined to form a complete count committee in October to prepare for the census.

Ramsey County Commissioner Victoria Reinhardt, who co-chairs the committee, said members are trying to reach residents in communities that are often undercounted. That includes immigrants, renters and people who are homeless or living in poverty.

About 50 people packed into the Arlington Hills Community Center in St. Paul for the group’s second meeting on Jan. 24. The most common question was about the Trump administration’s plan to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census. A federal judge recently blocked that addition, and now the Trump administration is asking the Supreme Court to rule on the case.

The question has caused “a lot of fear” in Minnesota’s Latino community, said Ruby Azurdia-Lee, president of the nonprofit Comunidades Latinas Unidas En Servicio.

“Why would people want to put themselves at risk by filling out the (census)?” Azurdia-Lee said. “Putting that in there is just going to set us back.”

In Minnesota’s Hmong community, the focus is on stressing the importance of a complete count.

Xiongpao Lee, lead organizer with the Hmong American Census Network, said his group has been handing out census pledge cards and spreading the word about the upcoming count.

The group plans to promote the census at local events and celebrations and through Hmong newspapers and radio stations.

“Really just trying to … bridge the community pride with the fact that … an accurate census count only helps to bolster all of the activities that the Hmong community has going on,” Lee said.

Political power on the line

It is estimated that Minnesota has added more than 300,000 residents since the 2010 count. But even as it outpaces its Midwestern neighbors, Minnesota could still lose one of its eight U.S. House seats to a fast-growing state like Texas.

The last time Minnesota lost a House seat was after the 1960 census, when it went down from nine to eight. Losing another would diminish Minnesota’s role in Washington and in presidential elections; the state would also lose an Electoral College vote as a result.

The result means having one less voice in Congress to advocate for local priorities, such as farm subsidies and support for the medical devices industry.

“It’s as if the Vikings are going on the field and they’re missing a player,” said Larry Jacobs, director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for the Study of Politics and Governance. “We’ve been able to exert influence probably above our size, and if we lose that, we’re just going to be less influential.”

The Minnesota Legislature redraws the boundaries for congressional and state legislative districts after each census, a process known as redistricting. If Minnesota were to lose a U.S. House seat after the 2020 count, state lawmakers would have to decide how to divide the state into seven congressional districts instead of eight.

That could force two members of Congress into a fight over a seat that has been merged.

“We get this one chance to get this count right, and then we … distribute the political power and dollar resources for the next decade,” Brower said.