California Could Lose a Seat In Congress. Here’s What That Would Mean

A poster advertising the 2020 Census in Arabic is seen in Los Angeles on February 27, 2020.  (Chris Delmas/AFP via Getty Images)

California is likely to lose a seat in Congress after the 2020 Census.

This would be a major shift in the state’s history. Until recently, California was sending more members to the U.S. House of Representatives every decade, up to the current total of 53 — the most seats of any state by far.

But in the year 2000, California’s population started to slump. That’s a problem when it comes to political apportionment because even though California is still growing (now just shy of 40 million people), other states like Texas and Florida have expanded faster.

When the Census Bureau divvies up seats in Congress next year, those faster-growing states will likely get more representation, and California will need to decide which congressional district to chop up.

State politicians feared a census undercount could cement this fate. In preparation, the state Legislature allocated $187 million for a huge census outreach campaign. In 2010, in comparison, the state only spent $2 million.

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Ditas Katague, director of the California census office, said the campaign’s goal was to preserve California’s political clout.

“It’s power, it’s money and it’s data. Those are the three reasons why we invest,” Katague said.

One less seat might not seem like a big deal for the state with the most representatives, but it would mean fewer electoral votes in a presidential election.

According to Eric McGhee, a senior fellow with the Public Policy Institute of California, the state’s problems might also get less attention in Congress, like wildfires, for example.

“You could imagine the desire to get federal money to help with those wildfires would unite the [California] caucus,” McGhee said. “They might be able to speak with one voice regardless whether they’re Democrats or Republicans.”

The big spending on census outreach was meant to ensure that California’s hard-to-count residents, like immigrants, children and renters, don’t get missed by the census. But McGhee expects that reaching those people will now be a whole lot tougher with the coronavirus pandemic.

“We could end up having a worse count than other states, given the vulnerable populations that we have here,” McGhee said.

If a seat is lost, McGhee and other political analysts predict that it will be taken away from the Los Angeles County area. According to a report from Claremont McKenna College, the 27th congressional district in the San Gabriel Valley is most at risk of losing a representative.

The mostly suburban area in Eastern Los Angeles has experienced its own slowdown in population in the last decade. And since each district is supposed to have the same number of constituents, the region might not be able to justify its representation.

But removing a district is tricky work, and the 27th congressional district is 40% Asian American, one of the highest concentrations in the county. If that constituency is broken up, it would mean Asian Americans could have less of a voice in Congress.

U.S. Rep. Judy Chu, who currently serves the 27th, became the first Chinese American woman elected to Congress in 2009. Chu believes her constituents should not be split into surrounding districts and cites the state constitution and Voting Rights Act, which are supposed to protect communities with common interests and prevent racial discrimination.

“I think there are very special issues that pertain to the San Gabriel Valley,” Chu said. “That’s why it’s important for us to have our own representative and our own voice.”

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Andrew Busch, director of Claremont McKenna's Rose Institute of State and Local Government, said the Voting Rights Act has rarely been invoked to protect Asian Americans and expects that it might be hard to defend the 27th congressional district because Asian Americans are so diverse.

"You have a variety of very different groups — Chinese Americans, Korean Americans, Vietnamese Americans — each have their significantly different voting patterns," he said.

Heng Lam Foong, program director with advocacy group Asian Pacific Islander Forward Movement, is concerned about losing a hard-won seat. The district was only recently drawn to unite several largely Asian American cities, and now that work could be undone.

“To lose that seat ... it would be tragic,” Foong said.

Foong is conducting census outreach in the San Gabriel Valley —mostly online these days. So far, Foong is proud of the response rates she’s seeing in the 27th: Households in the district are completing the census at a much higher rate than the rest of the state and the U.S. as a whole.

But if California hopes to keep its 53 seats, everyone across the state will need to participate, too.