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Game Theory: Miscounting the Census

Relative to the apportionment of representation, having so few Representatives creates a powerful incentive for states to game the census process. That explains why the 2020 census miscounts were heavily skewed to favor one political party over the other.

Every ten years, as required by the Constitution, the US Census Bureau conducts a population census for the purpose of reapportioning representation in the U.S. House of Representatives to the About Congressional Apportionment. Of course, a census of hundreds of millions of people is such a massive undertaking that some miscounting is inevitable even under the best of circumstances. Consequently, after the census and apportionment process is completed, the Census Bureau does a post-game analysis to estimate how far off the population totals may have been for each state. That analysis, known as the Post-Enumeration Survey (PES), was recently released for the 2020 Census Coverage Estimates for People in the United States by State and Census Operations. June 2022.

The PES Report provides the Census Bureau’s estimated population miscount for each state. As illustrated below, these miscounts range from -5% to +6.8%. (Note that these miscount estimates relate only to “Household Population”, which comprises approximately 97% of the total population used to apportion representation.)

Figure 1

According to the PES Report, in only 14 states did the Census Bureau collect enough data to estimate miscounts that are statistically These 14 states had significant miscounts in the 2020 census. (May 19, 2022) (Those states are indicated with the darker bars in the chart above.) All the remaining states were also likely to have some degree of miscounting, but unfortunately not enough data was collected to generate statistically significant4Statistical significance is a determination that a relationship between two or more variables is caused by something other than chance. estimates.

At first glance, most of these population miscounts may seem rather small, if not inconsequential. However, because Congress allows us to have only 435 Representatives, the resulting impacts on the sizes of the states’ House delegations were inequitably disproportionate. If our number of Representatives were much larger, the impact of the miscounts would be allocated more equitably across the states. Therefore, relative to achieving equitable apportionments, this factor should be of concern even if it is believed that the Census Bureau, and all the states, conduct the census in the most competent and scrupulous manner humanly possible, as some miscounting would still be inevitable.

However, the possibility of gaining an additional Representative (and therefore an additional Presidential Elector) as a result of a small increase in population is a powerful incentive for a state to deliberately inflate its census counts. And, as it turns out, the estimates provided by the PES Report reveal that the 2020 population overcounts generally advantaged one political party, while the undercounts disadvantaged the opposing party.

The chart below is identical to the Household Population Miscount chart above, except that each state’s political leaning is indicated relative to the Democrat or Republican party.5For the purposes of this analysis, the states were classified as blue (leaning towards the Democrat party) or red (leaning towards the Republican party) based on each state’s popular vote in the 2016 presidential election, resulting in 20 blue and 30 red states.
Figure 2

Examining the chart above, it is readily apparent that a majority of the Democrat (blue) states were overcounted in the 2020 census, and that a majority of the Republican (red) states were undercounted.  In fact, 75% of the blue states were likely to have been overcounted, the average of which was 2.6%.  And the red state statistics are nearly the converse of those: Approximately 67% of them were likely undercounted, the average of which was over 2%. Even allowing for the fact that these miscount estimates are based on statistical sampling and, therefore, each state’s mean estimate is subject to a probability distribution, in the aggregate they still should not have been so lopsidedly biased in favor of one political party over the other.

Of course, the consequences of this are far more serious than the inconvenience of having erroneous population data: This bias enabled a few overcounted blue states to effectively misappropriate representation that rightfully belonged to a few undercounted red states. In fact, as shown in our Analysis of Apportionment Sensitivity to Population Miscounts, the implication of the scenario suggested by the PES report is that three Representatives who were assigned to blue states (Colorado, Minnesota and Rhode Island) should have been apportioned to red states (Florida, Tennessee and Texas). Moreover, even if the analysis is limited to those 14 states for which statistically significant miscount estimates were reported, it is revealed that Minnesota and Rhode Island each have a Representative that should have been apportioned to Florida and Texas.

In the current media environment, imagine what would have happened if the Census Bureau’s estimated miscounts had revealed the converse outcome; that is, if the population miscounts had shifted representation from Democrat Party to Republican Party control, and to the same extent. That would have undoubtedly been a major news story, and appropriately so! But the real story here is not about which political party may have done a better job of manipulating the census process.  The real story is that by keeping the size of the House of Representatives fixed at small number for over a century, Congress has instituted a powerful inducement for states to game the census process.

© [published 7/25/22, updated 10/16/22]

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