Fear is rising among Democrats over the prospect that President Donald Trump’s hard line on immigration might ultimately cost California a seat in Congress during the upcoming round of reapportionment.
Top Democrats here are increasingly worried the administration’s restrictive policies — and the potential inclusion of a question about citizenship on the next U.S. census — could scare whole swaths of California’s large immigrant population away from participating in the decennial count, resulting in an undercount that could cost the state billions of dollars in federal funding over the next decade and, perhaps, the loss of one of its 53 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.
The fears are well-founded: According to the population formula used by Congress to distribute House seats every 10 years, California is currently on the bubble in 2020, on the verge of losing a seat for the first time in its history.
California’s Democratic governor, Jerry Brown, on Wednesday proposed spending more than $40 million on the state’s own census-related outreach efforts to avoid that fate.
“There’s a lot of fear” about the census count, said Paul Mitchell of Political Data Inc., the voter data firm used by both Republicans and Democrats in California. “The state is starting to get together resources, because it does have an actual direct impact … on state revenues if we have a severe undercount.”
California Secretary of State Alex Padilla told POLITICO the Trump administration’s management of the census could have “devastating effects” on his state.
“The citizenship question is just the latest red flag — maybe one of the biggest — but just the latest red flag,” Padilla said.
Angst about the 2020 census took hold nationally long before the Justice Department urged the U.S. Census Bureau last month to ask people about their citizenship, a request first reported by ProPublica. The bureau has been hampered by management questions and funding shortages that voting-rights advocates fear could hinder efforts to reach immigrants and other hard-to-count groups.
Those populations are especially prevalent in California. And even before Trump’s latest broadside at immigrant communities — asking why the United States should admit people from “shithole countries” — Democrats and voting-rights advocates warned that Trump’s rhetoric on immigration could chill participation.
“It’s already a toxic environment coming forward from D.C.,” said Daniel Zingale, of the nonpartisan advocacy group The California Endowment. “When you add up all of these things — the abandonment of competent leadership, the proposed citizenship question, the hostile environment toward a state like ours and our diverse population, it is perceived here as a less than act of good faith coming from Washington, D.C.”
Zingale added, “I think Californians have never felt less represented in the national capital than we’re feeling right now.”
According to a study last month by Virginia-based Election Data Services, California could come “very close” to losing a congressional seat following the 2020 census regardless of immigrant participation in the count, a result of the state’s flattening population growth.
Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Montana, North Carolina, Oregon and Texas could all gain seats, according to the study, while eight or nine states, including New York, Illinois and West Virginia, could each lose one.
Yet uncertainty about demographic changes and the Trump administration’s handling of the census continues to cloud those projections. Kimball Brace, president of Election Data Services, cautioned in a prepared statement that “the change in administration and the lack of a Census Director could have a profound impact on how well the 2020 Census is conducted, and therefore the counts that are available for apportionment.”
The prospect of losing a congressional seat is a familiar predicament in Rust Belt states. But it’s unheard of in California, which has added 42 House seats since 1920 due to nearly nonstop population growth. In such a solidly blue state, the loss of a seat would have a disproportionate impact on the Democratic Party.
“If millions of non-citizens refuse to participate in the US Census, the Democrats will take [a] massive political beating,” Tony Quinn, a political analyst and former Republican legislative aide, wrote in the Fox & Hounds political blog last week. “That’s because electoral districts must be drawn based on population. The non-citizen population resides in heavily Democratic areas; if they are not counted, those areas will not have sufficient population to support Democratic congressional and legislative districts, especially in the big cities.”
Garry South, a longtime Democratic strategist, accused the White House of “trying to turn [the census] into essentially a gerrymandering process.”
The Trump administration has not yet moved to add a citizenship question to the census. And many Republicans, who have long called for its inclusion, downplayed concerns about a significant undercount in California or any other state.
Harmeet Dhillon, a San Francisco attorney and member of the Republican National Committee, said that “by the time we have to get closer to actually performing [the census] … this is the type of thing where there’s a legion of bureaucrats who are tasked with doing this” and “it gets done somehow.”
In a state where Democrats control every statewide office and overwhelming majorities in the Legislature, Dhillon said Democrats can only blame themselves if California loses a House seat. More people would come to California or stay here, she said, if taxes and other regulatory burdens were not so high.
Taking aim at one liberal firebrand, Dhillon said, “My only request is if we end up losing a seat, if it could be taken from Maxine Waters’ congressional district.”
The results of the 2020 census on California’s congressional representation (which could also mean the loss of a vote in the Electoral College) will not be felt until after the next presidential election — an eternity in politics. But California politicians are acutely aware of the significance of the count, having been stung by the census before.
Following the 1990 census, the state’s nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office estimated that a higher undercount in California than in other states — with difficulty counting non-white people, young people and renters, among others — “likely cost California one seat in the U.S. House of Representatives and at least $2 billion in federal funds during the 1990s.”
Ten years later, the state undertook a more aggressive outreach effort of its own. In an effort similar to what California Democrats are contemplating today, the state employed local organizations to promote the census in their communities and financed a multilingual, multimedia advertising campaign.
Now, with uncertainty surrounding the 2020 census and with California “just on the cusp of perhaps losing a seat,” said Phil Sparks, co-director of The Census Project, a group that tracks the census, “I think they have a well-founded concern about whether they’re going to be fairly and accurately counted.”
Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, said California has more at stake in an undercount than other states because “any undercount of Latinos, any undercount of immigrants, is going to hit California harder than Nebraska, or some other state with a low population of Latinos and immigrants.”
Vargas, a member of the Census Bureau’s National Advisory Committee on Racial, Ethnic and Other Populations, described underrepresentation in the census as a perennial concern.
But he added, “What has complicated the bureau’s job for 2020 is that what we’re hearing out of Washington today, and have been for the last year … is that there is greater hostility from the federal government to immigrants.”
Heading into the 2020 census with Trump, Vargas said, “That’s the premise we’re working with.”