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Change To Census Military Counts Could Shift House Seats, Electoral College

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

This month, your state may end up on a list of winners and losers. That's because the first results of the 2020 census will be released soon. Those numbers determine how much power your state gets in Congress and the Electoral College. And for the latest census, one particular group was counted in a new way that could shift power to states with military bases. NPR's census correspondent Hansi Lo Wang reports.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: When Marines are deployed from North Carolina's Onslow County, Glenn Hargett says you can feel it on the roads.

GLENN HARGETT: You can see a lot of impact from car traffic patterns in our community. It is a lot easier to get around, particularly at 5 o'clock.

WANG: Hargett is an assistant manager for this Southern coastal county.

HARGETT: The home of Jacksonville, N.C. - the other Jacksonville - and the home to Camp Lejeune, the largest military amphibious training base for the Marines.

WANG: Some 47,000 service members usually live on or around this Marine Corps base. But for the 2010 census, some were not counted as residents of this area. That's because they had been sent off to serve stints in Iraq or Haiti, and they were counted instead as residents of the home addresses they gave when they first enlisted. Hargett says that may have contributed to undercounts in states like North Carolina in 2010, making it harder to get more federal funding and attract investment.

HARGETT: We want businesses to locate here. And they look at our community and see that there's a lot of people that aren't being counted in the census, and they don't take us seriously because that number is smaller than what might be the real number.

WANG: That dynamic may change, though, with the 2020 census because last year, for the first time, deployed troops were counted as residents of the areas of the bases or ports they were temporarily assigned away from, including Camp Lejeune...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LONNIE TRAVIS: It is important that you are counted here.

HARGETT: ...Where Marine Sergeant Major Lonnie Travis appeared in this video promoting the census.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRAVIS: It benefits the quality of life of those who come after you, and it helps everyone in the community.

WANG: The change in policy came after years of lawmakers and local leaders of military communities pushing the Census Bureau to reconsider where it counts service members who are deployed to war zones and other dangerous locations. States with military installations like Kentucky could get a boost in the thousands to their census numbers through this new way of counting, and that may help bring those states more power in Congress and the Electoral College.

REBECCA TIPPETT: Very small differences from state to state can be meaningful, and this has the potential to be that small difference for some states.

WANG: Rebecca Tippett is the director of Carolina Demography at the Carolina Population Center at UNC Chapel Hill and has come up with projections on how seats in the House of Representatives and votes in the Electoral College may be reshuffled based on the first 2020 census results. There's some math involved here, but basically, states are reallocated their share of power for the next decade after they're ranked according to their latest census numbers.

TIPPETT: So if you're on the fence of possibly getting a congressional seat or possibly losing a seat, every possible person counts.

KIM BRACE: It's a tug of war that's a mathematical tug of war.

WANG: Kim Brace of Election Data Services projects that Florida and Texas, both home to multiple military installations, are on the brink of gaining more House seats and Electoral College votes. But Brace warns that last year's head count was like no other U.S. census, making it even harder to predict how the numbers will actually shake out.

BRACE: You have not had, in previous decades, the impact of COVID. You have not had an administration, the Trump administration, that was so hostile to the census.

WANG: Trump officials cutting short the time for counting and their failed push for a citizenship question may have contributed to the undercounting of immigrants and people of color in the same states with boosted numbers from deployed troops.

Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.