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What a 2020 census undercount means for Illinois

The state will likely lose a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Black-majority districts are most at risk with an undercount.

Signs advertising the 2020 Census are posted near South Sacramento Drive and West Roosevelt Road in former Douglas Park on the Southwest Side, Tuesday morning, Sept. 29, 2020.
Signs advertising the 2020 Census are posted near South Sacramento Drive and West Roosevelt Road in former Douglas Park on the Southwest Side, Tuesday morning, Sept. 29, 2020.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

The U.S. Census Bureau has wrapped up its nationwide head count and is now finalizing the data that will affect federal funding and political representation for the next decade.

The bureau is racing to deliver data on the apportionment of congressional seats to President Donald Trump by the Dec. 31 deadline — a target it is unlikely to meet.

Before counting for the 2020 census even began, thanks to years of population loss, Illinois had been expected to lose one of its 18 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives — and with it, one of its votes in the Electoral College.

But now that’s looking like a best-case scenario. The effect of the pandemic on the census could mean an undercount that could cost Illinois a second congressional seat, said James Lewis, an expert on legislative redistricting.

A single congressional district represents approximately 700,000 people on average. Some state districts could expand to make up for population loss and as a result can dilute the political power of some communities that were miscounted.

“I think there is a strong possibility of an undercount in Illinois, and we can lose two seats,” said Lewis, a researcher at Rob Paral & Associates. “I don’t think it’s game over yet, and we have to wait to see the numbers, but it’s a concern.”

Lewis cited examples from throughout the year he said proved the federal government didn’t do enough to mitigate the effects of the coronavirus on the 2020 census. That includes the Trump administration’s unwillingness to extend the time for households to complete the census.

The Trump administration also manufactured many barriers to this year’s count that included its failed attempt to add a citizenship question to the form and a memorandum barring undocumented residents from being counted that is still being fought in federal courts.

The effects of these threats had a profound impact in Chicago’s immigrant enclaves — especially on the Southwest Side, where response rates in some census tracts fell below 35%.

That contrasts with the overall Illinois self-response rate of 71.4% — the seventh-highest in the country and even higher than its 70.5% rate in the 2010 census.

Despite the improvement, the combination of population loss and low turnout in hard-to-count communities could mean some areas now in different congressional districts will find themselves merged into one, which could diminish their clout.

Lewis, who worked on remap proposals throughout the state following the 1990 census, said most at risk to lose representation are Black-majority districts. He said the city could go from three Black-majority districts — each covering part of Chicago — to just two.

“If there are two seats lost, I imagine the city will lose some apportionment of its representation to the suburbs,” Lewis said. “It doesn’t mean that the underlying population is going to be any less African American than it has been. It’s just going to be in a larger district.”

This could also make it difficult for longtime incumbents seeking reelection. Their districts, once heavily Black, would gain white residents as the lines are redrawn to take in more suburban areas.

“I would say as a general principle, but not enshrined in law, is we want our representation to look more or less like the makeup of our larger community,” Lewis said. “I think it is good for our elected bodies to look like the people they represent.”

Lewis said how maps are redrawn should concern residents, as it could mean the difference between a community having a single representative or being split three ways.

“Efficiency in government is helpful to a degree, for a representative to be able to have a strong voice on a targeted constituent,” Lewis said. “Do you want to be working with three different reps on a development project? Or just one that understands what’s best for a single community and represents that interest well?”

Unlike Illinois, several states, including Florida, Arizona and Texas, are expected to gain congressional seats; Texas is estimated to add up to three.

But Lewis also stressed the entire country faced the same hurdles with the census, and that could benefit Illinois. If most states were undercounted, the effects could offset.

Still, the impact of an undercount will be felt in other ways.

Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton said last month a 1% undercount would equal a loss of $195 million a year in federal funding for the state and its residents.

Christopher Mooney, the W. Russell Arrington Professor of State Politics at UIC, said it’s too early to say exactly how much money the state will miss out on, but the politicizing of this year’s count presents some uncertainty.

“I wouldn’t be surprise if it mounted to a billion dollar loss over 10 years,” Mooney said.

State programs that have the most to lose include Medicaid, Head Start, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and Highway Planning and Construction.

Funding for these programs rely on population counts, “so the more people you have, the more funding you get,” Mooney said.

Mooney said mostly states with high urban populations like Illinois, New York and California will feel the brunt of underfunding.

“People with less money, working a lot of jobs, who move a lot and are often people of color or non-citizens may have been deterred to not fill out the census because of the Trump administration,” Mooney said. “It is that class of people, more likely Democrats, who will be most affected.”

Manny Ramos is a corps member in Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster Sun-Times coverage of issues affecting Chicago’s South and West sides.