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Citizenship Question Could Impact Census Count, Putting California Congress Seat At Risk

Michelle R. Smith / AP Photo

This March 23, 2018 photo shows an envelope containing a 2018 census test letter mailed to a resident in Providence, R.I.

Michelle R. Smith / AP Photo

California could be at risk of losing a congressional seat depending on the results of the 2020 census, according to a new report.

Changes to the count, including a new question about citizenship, could make it more likely that California’s population will be undercounted. A new report from the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California found that could cost the state a seat in the House of Representatives and money for public programs.

The report found three of four residents in the state belong to at least one often undercounted population: children, young men, Latinos, African Americans and renters. PPIC ran multiple scenarios based on past census data and the possible percentage of hard-to-reach people that could participate. 

If population growth continues at the current rate, and the census count is as accurate as it was in 2010, then California is on track to keep its seats in the house, according to the report.

If census takers do a poor job surveying hard-to-reach people, such as what happened in 1990, the group estimates more than 1.6 million Californians could be missed. That would put the state’s Congress seat in jeopardy, and impact what federal dollars it receives for public programs such as food assistance, low-income housing and foster care.

“All we have at this point is warning signs,” said Eric McGhee, a co-author of the institute’s report. “It could turn out just fine. But there are things that should make us more concerned, and especially vigilant. Some of the things put us in very new territory.”

He referred to a new question about citizenship, which has not been asked on the census since 1950.

California advocacy groups and some officials, including Secretary of State Alex Padilla, are fighting back against the question. They worry it will dissuade undocumented residents from answering the survey, making a miscount more likely.

“There are really big concerns about how this information is going to be used,” said Christian Arana, policy director of the Latino Community Foundation, a statewide nonprofit group. “Residents have already been distrustful of government.”

He said if the question remains on the census, local organizations will have to work with immigrant communities to tell them it’s safe to participate.

“Everybody needs to be counted, because we know that political representation and federal dollars are at stake,” Arana said.

The Census Bureau is bound by law to keep respondents’ answers private and cannot share them with Immigration and Customs Enforcement or any other government agency.

California has allocated more than $90 million for census outreach.

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