California’s population is growing more slowly than expected, making it increasingly likely it will lose at least one congressional seat in 2020 — and maybe more.
“Right now, the current numbers that are coming in look very much like California is on track to lose a seat,” Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) Research Fellow Eric McGhee told The Sacramento Bee.
McGhee’s assessment came after the state released its latest demographic report on May 1. The report, produced by the California Department of Finance, estimates that California added 186,807 residents in 2018, a growth rate of 0.47 percent. That is the slowest in the state’s history, the department noted, which it attributed to “a significant decline in births,” as well as lower student enrollment and a rise in deaths as California’s “Baby Boomers” continue to age.
Census Bureau data released in December also documented a slowdown.
That raises the stakes for the 2020 Census even higher. The Census Bureau will “reapportion” the country’s 435 U.S. House seats in 2021 based off the population numbers it tallies next year. It would then be up to the state’s independent redistricting commission to draw the new congressional districts lines for the apportioned seats.
California is already on edge about the census, given the state’s large proportion of people considered “hard to count.”
“It’s not going to take much,” said McGhee. “A lot of these things sit on knife’s edge and they depend on not just how much California has grown but how much other states have grown.”
As it stands, California is “not on the low end of the growth,” compared to the rest of the country, “it’s just not on the high end, either.”
Still, that’s a marked difference with the breakneck pace of growth the state experienced in the 20th century. Between 1900 and 1950, California’s population grew more than 500 percent, from less than 2 million people to 10 million, according to PPIC. In the second half of the century, it nearly tripled.
That led to large jumps in political representation in Congress, as well. In 1930, California gained nine new congressional seats, according to the U.S. House of Representatives Office of the Historian.
The state’s growth rate has slowed over the last two decades, however. Now other states, like Texas, Florida, North Carolina and Colorado, are growing at a faster clip. California is still home to more people than any other state, with a population that now stands 39.9 million. But for the first time ever, it did not gain a congressional seat after the 2010 census, holding steady at its 53 districts.
And now California is poised for another historic first: losing a congressional seat.
Like McGhee, the political data analysis web site PoliData is forecasting the state will lose one seat. So is Claremont McKenna College’s Rose Institute of State and Local Government, which published a report last month predicting a congressional seat is most likely to be subtracted from parts of Los Angeles County that have seen their population decline in recent years.
Four districts in downtown and East Los Angeles — the 27th, 32nd, 38th and 40th — “appear to be most at risk of becoming the district California loses in 2021,” the report says.
It also notes that that “all four of those districts are represented by Latino or Asian-American Members of Congress.” They are Democrats Judy Chu, Grace Napolitano, Linda Sanchez and Lucille Roybal-Allard.
California’s redistricting commission is overseen by State Auditor Elaine Howle. In June, it is scheduled to begin accepting applications for its 2020 redistricting. The commission consists of five Democrats, five Republicans and four unaffiliated voters.
Doug Johnson, a research fellow with Rose Institute, said that an undercount of California’s population in the 2020 Census raises the risk that the state could lose more than one congressional seat, although that’s less likely.
“It would have to be a really extreme undercount for California to lose two congressional seats,” said Johnson, “but certainly an undercount would solidify that we would lose one.”
Local officials fear that a lag in funding, a move to more automation and fewer staff and offices, and the Trump administration’s attempt to add a controversial citizenship question could also lead to fewer Californians responding to the census in 2020. That would cost California not just in terms of political representation, but also in terms of the federal funding directed to the state. Funds for many federal programs are calculated based off of the census’ headcount.
McGhee said that California’s lower-than-expected growth rate in 2018 significantly raises the likelihood the state will lose at least one congressional seat, “even if there’s a perfect count” in 2020. And there’s a risk it could be more than that.
If the 2018 population count is “coming in lower than the forecast, that would make larger seat losses certainly more possible,” said McGhee. “It just shifts everything down.”
Update: This story was updated to correct the spelling of Rep. Roybal-Allard’s last name.