PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — It turns out the surprisingly high census count that allowed Rhode Island to keep two U.S. House seats may not have been accurate.
A study released Thursday by the U.S. Census Bureau identified Rhode Island as one of eight states that were overcounted in the 2020 census, which will be used for the next decade to allocate congressional seats and federal money.
Rhode Island was overcounted by 5.05% or roughly 55,000 residents, according to the Census Bureau, ranking after Hawaii and Delaware for the third-highest overcount in the nation. Massachusetts was also overcounted, by 2.24%.
Political observers were stunned last year when the Census Bureau announced Rhode Island’s population had grown to 1,097,379 in 2020, giving the state more than enough residents to avoid losing one of its two U.S. House seats despite years of predictions that such an outcome was nearly inevitable. Elected and civic leaders had made a full-court press to count as many people as possible leading up to the census.
“Rhode Island retained its second congressional seat by approximately 19,000 people, so this overcount benefited the state greatly with respect to political representation,” said John Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island, who was closely involved in the census count efforts locally. “The overcount explains why it was such a surprise when the apportionment numbers were released.”
The findings will not change the distribution of U.S. House seats for the next decade, but suggest Rhode Island could be at greater risk of losing a seat after the 2030 census than previously thought.
There was no immediate comment from the offices of Congressmen David Cicilline and Jim Langevin, who had been jockeying behind the scenes before the census numbers came out in preparation for one of their seats disappearing. In January Langevin decided to retire despite his seat’s preservation, setting off a crowded campaign to replace him in the 2nd District.
Researchers based the new estimates on what’s known as the Post-Enumeration Survey, which is conducted every 10 years to check the accuracy of the most recent census. Nationwide in 2020 there was a regional undercount of 1.9% for the South and a regional overcount of 1.7% for the Northeast, and the error rate was larger than in the 2010 census, the study found.
“Although none of the assessments alone can be considered definitive since no ‘true count’ of the population exists, today’s PES results suggest that some states experienced undercounts or overcounts,” Census Bureau Director Robert Santos said in a statement.
“It is important to remember that the quality of the 2020 census total population count is robust and consistent with that of recent censuses,” Santos said. “However, we know there is still more work to do in planning future censuses to ensure equitable coverage across the United States and we are working to overcome any and all obstacles to achieve that goal.”
He also noted that census personnel faced “unprecedented challenges” in achieving an accurate count in 2020 due to disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Marion said the Census Bureau found the main cause of Rhode Island’s overcount was “people counted more than once.”
“Rhode Island likely is not growing as quickly as the 2020 census led us to believe,” Marion said. “While we can never know the causes of the overcount, it’s reasonable to surmise that the community-based effort to encourage participation played a role, since several of the states that also had overcounts, including New York and Minnesota, also had vigorous efforts to encourage participation.”
But Steve Frias, one of Rhode Island’s Republican National Committee members, criticized Marion for his reaction to the overcount, arguing he should have been more critical of the outcome.
“This census count will further undermine public confidence in government,” Frias said in a statement. “This will cause people to be even more skeptical of eliminating mail ballot safeguards and more strongly supportive of voter ID and prohibiting ballot harvesting.”
Frias suggested the federal government should consider investigating what happened. “Democracy only works if people trust the system,” he said. “Double counting 55,000 people in order to hold on to a congressional seat destroys that trust.”
Ted Nesi (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Target 12 investigative reporter and 12 News politics/business editor. He co-hosts Newsmakers and writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook