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Colorado Is Getting Another Representative In Congress. Here's What You Need To Know About The Census Count Release

A slide from the US Census Bureau's Monday press conference showing the states that gained US house seats. Colorado, Florida, Montana, North Carolina, and Oregon gained one seat. Texas gained two.
U.S. Census Bureau
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A slide from the U.S. Census Bureau's Monday press conference showing the states that gained seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Updated at 5:58 p.m.

The most official count of the country’s population was released by the Census Bureau today.

Colorado is getting an extra seat in congress because of the count, Bureau officials announced Monday, as many have been expecting for years. Only five other states gained seats from this count, with Texas gaining two.

"I think some of the little metrics that are interesting is that Colorado increased by that 14.8%. So almost twice as fast as the U.S. as a whole," said Elizabeth Garner, Colorado’s state demographer in the Department of Local Affairs. "We changed rank. We're now (the) 21st largest state instead of 22nd. So we surpassed Minnesota."

"While no census is perfect, we are confident that today's 2020 census results meet our high data quality standards," Ron Jarmin, Acting Director, U.S. Census Bureau said Monday. "We would not be releasing them to you otherwise."

This number tells the federal government how much tax money it owes Colorado for various programs, like food assistance and COVID-19 relief funds.

But there is a lot that number won’t be able to show, like the population of Fort Collins, Logan County or any of the state’s other cities, towns and counties. It won’t tell Colorado how many Black people or children or renters live in those places and in the state overall.

Colorado’s government needs those numbers to distribute local and federal tax dollars for conservation and other programs within its borders. Small business owners and entrepreneurs need those numbers to decide where to build their storefronts and ask for loans. Local officials need them to apply for grants and to manage wildfire recovery.

Those numbers were supposed to be released last month. The state-level results being released today were supposed to come out last December. The 2020 census count was thrown off track by the pandemic and long legal, political battles, leading the Bureau to announce it needed more time to check the count for errors, like people being counted in the wrong place, more than once or not at all.

'Regardless of what we do, we're going to be sued'

One of the biggest examples of the important role local census data plays is in Colorado’s Independent Redistricting Commission. The commission must use those numbers to draw the political district maps that decide who everyone will be voting alongside for the next decade.

The data needed to begin redistricting will be out by Aug. 16, Bureau officials said during Monday's announcement. That data will be in a "legacy" format that redistricting staff will have to process themselves and it will likely not be sufficient for the commission's final maps, commission staff told KUNC.

The necessary full local results could come out as late as Sept. 30, after the commission’s final, constitutionally-enshrined deadline to submit a map to the state Supreme Court for approval.

Redistricting commissioners and lawmakers worry that waiting to use the final census data (as the state constitution requires) will force the commissions to miss deadlines. That could result in lawsuits and mess with the 2022 election calendar. However, using data other than the official results could also result in lawsuits and invalidated maps.

“Regardless of what we do, we're going to be sued,” Congressional Redistricting Commissioner Danny Moore said during one of the group’s meetings last week. “This is why we're seeking legal counsel to do this.”

State Senate Bill 247 passed committee on Monday with bipartisan support. It aims to avoid future lawsuits by asking the state Supreme Court to allow the commission to use old census data to draw preliminary maps and move on to its public comment duties. If successful, the commission’s final maps will still have to use full census count data.

“I want the process to continue to move forward. I want us to find a way to start drawing maps, even with preliminary data,” said Commissioner John Kelly. “But I don't think it's fair to the public to draw maps on data that's not the final data and then bring final data and to make any sort of adjustments without a comment period or something like that.”

Accuracy concerns remain

Many officials and experts have been raising the alarm about the count’s accuracy since it began last year, as the pandemic halted outreach efforts while simultaneously elongating and compressing the timeline to count households that didn’t respond on their own. But on while releasing results Monday, Census officials repeatedly backed the count's veracity.

"I assured the president that the census was complete and accurate," said Secretary of Commerce Gina M. Raimondo.

It may not be clear how accurate the data released today actually is. The Census Bureau will release some accuracy measurements, like the number of people who had to be counted using official records because they didn’t respond to the census themselves. But a full accuracy assessment won’t be available until the end of 2021.

"One of the ways that we measure the quality of the census is to compare to our population estimates. Of course, our population estimates are based on the last census and built forward, adding birth, subtracting deaths, adding in migration," said Victoria Velkoff, the Bureau's associate director for demographic programs. "So most states are within 1% of our population estimates, which makes us feel very good about those census counts."

The number is also less than 1% smaller than the state's own population estimate, which used many of the same benchmarks the Bureau did, according to Elizabeth Garner, Colorado’s state demographer in the Department of Local Affairs.

"I had put in my little guesstimate for Colorado is right at 5.8 million," Garner told KUNC after the results were announced. "So this is about 27,000, a little bit lower than what we thought, but that's still less than 1%."

And even if the state-level data is mostly accurate (as it was in 2010), that doesn’t mean local level and demographic data will be (as it wasn’t for many groups and places in 2010).

The elongated data-review timeline eased some of the accuracy concerns for officials like Garner. But she’s still approaching the results cautiously.

"We're going to continue our efforts," she said. "So we will really be able to evaluate a lot of changes in Colorado as well as housing units to make sure that things were counted the way that they should be. And we'll use those estimates to evaluate the census counts that come out."

That local data might be able to help the state correct any inaccurate numbers in the census' yearly estimates, she said, which happen between the once-a-decade full counts. Adjusting those estimates will also adjust federal tax allocation during those years.

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