Under the U.S. Constitution, every 10 years since 1790 the nation conducts a census to determine the number of its inhabitants and then adjusts political boundaries according to demographic changes over the decade. The state Legislature decides how to draw the maps for Congressional and state legislative districts, with the governor approving or vetoing the lines.
The first step in that process happens when the U.S. Census Bureau announces how many seats each state gets in Congress. This process is called reapportionment and it determines how the 435 seats of the U.S. House of Representatives are given to each of the 50 states. Each state gets a minimum of one seat then the remaining 385 seats are doled out based on population.
Last week, the U.S. Census reported its analysis of the population information it collected last year. New York State lost a Congressional district, following nearly a century-long trend. In 1933, New York was represented by 45 members of the House; in 2022 it will be down to 26.
While it wasn’t news that the state was losing a seat – most expected that to be the case – what was surprising was just how close that loss was.
According to the Census Bureau, had New York counted just 89 more residents it would have kept its Congressional seat. That’s right: Had New York counted 89 additional inhabitants it would have made the difference. New York’s loss was the state of Minnesota’s gain.
New York did not lose population, it’s just that its anemic population growth was slower than the national increase. Thus, New York lost a seat and some Congressional power.
The preliminary information provided by the Census was just the number of Congressional seats, with more detailed information to be released in late summer that will let lawmakers know how to change the political boundaries of the 26 Congressional districts, as well as those for the state Senate and state Assembly.
While it is impossible to know exactly what the Census will report, demographic estimates in recent years have shown a decline in population for the upstate areas west of the Hudson Valley and increases in population in New York City and the Hudson Valley all the way to Saratoga.
If those estimates hold true, it is likely that the loss of a Congressional seat will be felt upstate and that downstate will pick up more representation in the state Legislature.
What were the factors in New York’s Congressional loss? There are three major theories as to what hurt New York’s census numbers:
First theory: the pandemic. The census is conducted in spring and summer and the state was reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic. Thousands of New Yorkers lost their lives and many moved to new locations and may not have been counted. Of course, the rest of the nation was impacted too, but COVID hammered New York first and may have made the 89-person difference.
Second theory: immigration. New York’s population growth has long been fueled by the arrival of new immigrants. The Trump Administration’s crackdown on the number of immigrants may have reduced the number of state inhabitants and thus cost New York its Congressional seat.
And third theory: the state’s support for the census. The Cuomo Administration had pledged to spend tens of millions of dollars to support a massive effort to educate New Yorkers on the importance of getting counted in the census. They did, but very late in the game.
By the time the governor announced New York’s efforts, in late November of 2019, the state had only six months until the census was to begin. Ironically, Minnesota had started its effort in 2015. It got New York’s Congressional seat. Would the state’s spending a little more money a little earlier have resulted in 89 more New Yorkers getting counted? We’ll never know.
Whatever the reasons New York lost out, the state has lost a Congressional seat. How mapmakers choose to draw the lines cannot be determined until the final census data is released later this year. All indications are that New York’s upstate region is likely to see some reduction in its representation in Congress and diminished political power in Albany, as well.
Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.
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