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After Months Of Delays, The 1st Census Results Are Here

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The first batch of results from the 2020 census are out. Today's numbers include the latest state population counts and are key in determining U.S. congressional seats for the next decade. Those numbers also affect each state's share of votes in the Electoral College. We're joined now by NPR correspondent Hansi Lo Wang.

Hi there, Hansi.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Hey, Audie.

CORNISH: Covering the census and congressional correspondent, Susan Davis - welcome to you.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Hey there.

CORNISH: Hansi, let's start with details from the results. What do you know?

WANG: We've learned the official population count. According to the 2020 census for the country, it's 331,449,281, and that represents a population growth about 7.4% since the 2010 count. And this is the second slowest rate of population growth in U.S. history. And because of these numbers, six states are gaining more political clout, more seats in the House of Representatives, which in turn means more Electoral College votes. Texas is the biggest winner here with two extra House seats, as well as Electoral College votes, one more seat each for Colorado, Florida, Montana, North Carolina and Oregon. And seven states will each lose one seat - Illinois, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and California, which lost a seat for the first time since it became a state.

CORNISH: Second slowest rate of population growth in U.S. history - other surprises?

WANG: Well, it's always interesting to find out which state got the last of the 435 seats for voting members in the House, and this time it was a remarkably close scramble. During the Census Bureau's press conference, Kristin Koslap, the bureau's senior technical expert on 2020 census congressional apportionment, revealed that if one thing turned out differently, New York could have kept the one seat it lost. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KRISTIN KOSLAP: If New York had had 89 more people, they would have received one more seat instead of the last state that received their last seat. There are 435 seats. So the last seat went to Minnesota, and New York was next in line.

WANG: So we have another example here for the history books about why the census counts and why every person counts.

CORNISH: Sue Davis, politically at stake here are congressional seats and votes in the Electoral College. What do these gains and losses actually look like?

DAVIS: Well, in the Electoral College, it certainly had an impact. If you consider that if these had been the state counts in the 2020 election, Biden would have won, but he would have won by three fewer Electoral College votes. Obviously, that wouldn't have changed the 7 million popular vote winning margin, but I think that this is the kind of thing that could fuel Electoral College critics who say it's moving further and further away of reflecting the political will of the country.

On the congressional level, it has a huge impact. You know, it does continue the sort of generation-long shift we've seen in shifting the power centers in the country away from the Northeast and the Midwest and into the South and West, where people are moving and population is growing. I also think it's important to remember that this isn't just about those 13 states that Hansi mentioned that are going to gain or lose seats. Thirty-seven seats aren't going to change their number of House districts. But they all, for the most part, will go through a redistricting process to redraw the lines in their states based on population shifts within the states to reflect where people are living today.

This often gets the most ugly, Audie, in states that are losing the seats because they don't really have a lot of options. It essentially means they either have to draw out an incumbent member of Congress, someone has to retire, or they're essentially daring lawmakers to run against each other.

CORNISH: I know it's early - any reaction out of Capitol Hill?

DAVIS: Oh, yeah. I mean, this is very closely watched by literally everyone, especially when you look at the House right now and how narrowly it's split between the two parties. They're both trying to gain as big an edge of possible out of this process. Just one example - Montana is going from one seat to two. Senator Steve Daines - he's a Republican. He was out very shortly with a statement saying they need to make sure there's no gerrymandering - we're going to hear a lot about that - to keep communities of interest together. This is a state where Democrats could, in theory, have some hope of gaining this new seat depending on how those lines are drawn. And when you're talking about House margins this narrow, literally every competitive seat's going to matter in 2022.

CORNISH: So that's what is at stake. And, Hansi, you watched all the twists and turns leading up to this - right? - because it's so high-stakes - numbers delayed because of COVID-19, changes the Trump administration tried to make and concerns about accuracy of the data. At this point, what can be said about the reliability of the 2020 census?

WANG: Well, the Census Bureau's career officials say they're very confident in the accuracy of these new state population numbers. But it's important to keep in mind it's going to be months before we have substantial indicators of the quality of these results. There are researchers with the American Statistical Association who are doing an independent audit of the Census Bureau's work. We're expecting a report out sometime in June. And in December - it's going to be a while. December - that's when the bureau will start releasing estimates about how many people may have been missed as well as rates of overcounting and undercounting groups by race and ethnicity.

And for this census, there are particular concerns that historically undercounted groups, including people of color, immigrants, renters, rural residents, may have been especially undercounted this time around because of the last-minute changes the Trump administration made to the census schedule, cutting short counting. And because it was so hard to reach those households that didn't respond by themselves, by filling out a form on their own, by sending out in-person visits, doorknockers - literally impossible to do in the early months of the pandemic.

CORNISH: OK. Looking ahead, Susan Davis, what are the next steps when it comes to redistricting?

DAVIS: Well, now we wait. The census says they're going to release the sort of nitty gritty data that the states will use to actually redraw their congressional and legislative district lines. They're going to do that by August 16. This is going to be data about population by race, by age and housing. They can literally get down to the neighborhood level.

All 50 states have their own way of redrawing their lines. Some use nonpartisan commissions. Other states, it's driven by whichever party runs the legislature. And because of COVID, this is all happening later than usual, releasing this data. So it's going to probably cause some deadline drama, probably going to cause some legal headaches. Certainly expect court challenges. And states might have to consider things like pushing back their candidate filing deadlines and when they plan to hold their primaries for the next election.

CORNISH: And, Hansi, to you, what happens next with the numbers that we've got?

WANG: They're part of a handoff process and on their way to Congress and ultimately ends with the clerk of the House of Representatives certifying these numbers and reporting them out to the states. And some states that have lost seats may end up filing lawsuits challenging how these seats were assigned, so this could also get contentious in court before these new House assignments are used for the 2022 midterm elections.

CORNISH: That's NPR census correspondent Hansi Lo Wang.

Thank you.

WANG: You're welcome.

CORNISH: And NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis, thanks for explaining it.

DAVIS: You bet.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOUR TET'S "TWO THOUSAND AND SEVENTEEN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.