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Trump-Disrupted Census Hurts Marginalized Communities and Hands New Power to GOP

The broken census results show how the Trump administration’s damage will echo down the halls of history.

"Take the Census" signs are displayed on digital billboards at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts on September 9, 2020, in New York City.

If you’re not a Republican, you probably spent the morning grinding your teeth around your coffee. The census data is finally in, and the results as offered are galling for the current majority party. The combination of a raging pandemic and, it seems, some surprisingly deft meddling by the Trump administration has delivered five new House seats to bright red states, all of which came from blue states.

Adding insult to injury, according to FiveThirtyEight, is this: “With legislatures and commissions all over the country about to draw new congressional maps, states where Republicans have full control of the redistricting process added two seats on net (four seats gained, two lost). Meanwhile, the few states where Democrats wield the redistricting pen subtracted one seat on net (one gained, two lost).”

There is, of course, no guarantee that those new red-state seats will go to a Republican, but with GOP legislatures in those states in charge of drawing the district maps, odds of a Democratic pickup are fantastically long. Mr. Gerry, your mander is waiting.

Overall, state-lever Republican legislatures will have control over the redrawing of 187 congressional districts nationwide, more than twice as many as the Democrats, who will control the redrawing of 75 districts. The redrawing of 167 districts will be controlled by neither party, and six districts will not be redrawn at all. With House Democrats already clinging to a tiny majority, these numbers make the ’22 midterms fraught with electoral peril.

The top page of the political fallout report is straightforward: Power has once again shifted to the South, along with the population growth that brings new seats to a state. Texas and Florida won big — Texas picked up two seats from this census, and Florida gained one. New York State narrowly lost one seat, and California lost a seat for the first time in its 170-year history. States with diminishing populations such as West Virginia also lost representation.

How did this happen? Three reasons stand out.

First, and by the available numbers, the U.S. over the last decade saw the lowest overall population growth since the Great Depression, at 7.4 percent. “Experts say that paltry pace reflects the combination of an aging population, slowing immigration and the scars of the Great Recession more than a decade ago,” reports the Associated Press, “which led many young adults to delay marriage and families.”

A movement of workers to Sun Belt cities also played a part, and may be a thread of good news for Democrats: These are the voters who made the ’18 and ’20 contests so close in suburban areas like those surrounding Houston and Phoenix.

The second reason was COVID, period. As with every other aspect of life over the last 14 months, the pandemic threw a whole bag of monkey wrenches into the census process. Some people complete the census online, others fill out the mailer that got sent to their homes, but millions of people are best reached by census workers knocking on doors in poor, rural and immigrant communities and counting noses. The pandemic made reaching many marginalized communities difficult at best, and dangerous at worst. Note well that COVID became overwhelming because the Trump administration refused to take the necessary steps to contain it.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, former President Donald Trump and his administration labored mightily to disrupt and destroy the census process at every turn. For an administration noted for its aversion to hard work, they sure put the hours in trying to blow up the count.

There was the attempted addition of a citizenship question to the census, a flatly racist and illegal move made clear by the fact that the Constitution requires an accounting of “residents,” not “citizens.” Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross interfered with the census deadline dates with some help from a right-leaning Supreme Court, which allowed the Commerce Department to end the census earlier than planned.

Did former senior policy adviser Stephen Miller or someone like him get in Trump’s ear and convince him a COVID-disrupted census would serve him and his party? We will likely never know, but even the most cursory examination makes it clear Trump’s nihilistic reaction to the pandemic was at least partly intentional.

“Make no mistake, this is not simply a malicious and undemocratic move ahead of an election,” CEO of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service Krish O’Mara Vignarajah told NBC News as this fight was unfolding in early August. “Its impact is real and will be felt devastatingly so for a decade by communities that have been marginalized since the dawn of the nation. Immigrants are people and must be afforded the opportunity to be counted. We cannot go back to the time in our country where people were not counted as full human beings.”

Here, again, is evidence that the influence of the Trump administration will echo down the halls of history far longer than the four years they spent tearing the place up. Between then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s court-packing and Trump’s disruption of the census, a Trump-devoted minority in this country will continue to wield a level of influence belied by its size.

Then again, 74 million people looked over the wreckage of Trump’s four years and said, “More, please,” last November. Compounding that grim fact, Republicans at the state level have done a far better job at bunkering into their power bases than Democrats over the last 20 years, and moments like this are when those efforts yield fruit. There is, however, some cold comfort in the fact that a number of experts expected GOP gains from this census to be far more significant.

These are the numbers a corrupted and disrupted census process has delivered. These numbers reveal the vast influence of authoritarians, racists and a virus deliberately left unchecked. They are also numbers that reflect a far more right-leaning country than we knew, after those 74 million voters raised their hands. It is entirely dispiriting, but perhaps after everything we have seen, not so terribly surprising in the end.

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