Editor’s note: The deadline for the 2020 Census count has been extended from Oct. 5 to Oct. 31 to comply with a federal court order, according to an Oct. 2 press release by the U.S. Census Bureau.

It appears certain Shelby County will lose a state House seat after the 2020 Census results come in, and could lose two — both possibly from predominantly Black districts.

Shelby County has lost a legislative seat after each of the last four once-a-decade federal censuses. The losses stem from a combination of a greater population growth elsewhere in the state and an undercount of Memphis’ large Black population.

A review of the current situation indicates that the impact of the coronavirus pandemic and the way federal officials have responded to it may lead to the loss of two seats this time — at least one, and perhaps both, now held by Black representatives.

Related: 2020 Census could bring in dollars to Memphis for childcare, healthcare

Voting rights proponents became alarmed when Census officials announced on Aug. 3 that the counting effort for the 2020 Census would end on Sept. 30. Bureau officials had previously said they would extend the count after suspending door-to-door data collection for several weeks because of the coronavirus epidemic.

A federal court in California on Sept. 24 ordered the Census Bureau to continue collecting information through Oct. 31, granting a preliminary injunction requested in a lawsuit filed by several groups. Despite that ruling, the U.S. Commerce Department said on Monday it will end the count on Monday, Oct. 5. U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh said Tuesday that move would violate her order and she would consider a contempt motion against the federal government.

The groups that filed the lawsuit, led by the National Urban League, asserted the abrupt cutoff would result in grossly inaccurate numbers among poor people and communities of color. The Trump administration is appealing the decision.

The final figures are important. They will be used to reapportion the U.S. House of Representatives and redraw state and local government districts. The Republican-controlled legislature has in the past redrawn state legislative districts to pit incumbent Black lawmakers against one another or to dilute the number of Black voters in a district.

Also at stake is $1.5 trillion in federal money. The funds are distributed to states based on population for programs — including for housing, health care, education and transportation — as well as to businesses, nonprofits and households.

Several Democratic state lawmakers and other local officials held a news conference recently to appeal to the public to participate in the census count. Only 63.1 percent of Shelby County households had self-reported — by mail, phone or online — by Sept. 28, compared to 65.6 percent for the state.

The press conference was a reaction to a report by the nonprofit civic engagement coalition CivicTN about the potential House seat loss. The coalition supports increased representation for the “rising American electorate” — communities of color, poor families, single women, and young voters — according to its website.

Super majority, super power

The loss of as many as two house seats for Black Democrats would break a pattern. During past decades, the number of Black members of Shelby’s House delegation increased even as the delegation declined in size.

In 1975, six of Shelby County’s 18 state House members were Black. Currently, nine of the county’s 14 representatives are Black.

Shelby has lost one House seat after every census since 1980 because of larger population increases elsewhere, particularly in Middle and East Tennessee. While Shelby County has grown about 1% between 2010 and 2019 (from about 927,700 to an estimated 937,200), Davidson County, which includes Nashville, has grown 10% (from about 626,600 to an estimated 694,100), census figures show.

The counted number of Black residents in Memphis and Shelby County has increased significantly since the 1970s, though the Census Bureau estimated the 2010 Census undercounted about 2.1% of Blacks nationwide.

There were about 483,380 Black people (or 52.10% of the population) in Shelby County in 2010, compared to an estimated 509,000 (or 54.3%) in 2019, according to census data.

So while the county has been losing representation in Nashville, the makeup of that representation has become increasingly Black.

The Republican Party became the majority party in the Tennessee General Assembly in the 2000s and thus had control of legislative redistricting after the 2010 Census. The GOP, with its super majorities in both the state House and Senate, also will redraw the districts after the current census.

The 99-member state House currently has 73 Republicans and 26 Democrats, and the 33-member Senate has 28 Republicans and 5 Democrats. The districts for the two bodies must be drawn so they are near equal in population.

Having the power to redraw districts can drastically affect representation. The Republican plan adopted in 2012 moved House District 92 elsewhere in the state. That district had been represented by Henri Brooks, a Black Democrat, before she moved over to the County Commission. G. A. Hardaway, another Black Democrat, succeeded her in the House seat.

The new lines for the 2012 election placed Hardaway in District 86, which has long been represented by Black lawmaker Barbara Cooper.

To avoid challenging Cooper, Hardaway moved to District 93, which had long been represented by Mike Kernell, a white Democrat. Hardaway defeated Kernell and at that point, there were no white Democrats in Shelby County’s House delegation.

That changed in 2016 when white Democrat Dwayne Thompson defeated GOP incumbent Steve McManus in House District 96, which includes Cordova and Germantown. Thompson won again in 2018. Republicans are trying again to defeat him this year.

Undercounted, underrepresented

Census field work is important because it involves house-to-house data collecting from households that have not responded.

Reasons for this, and the resulting undercount of the disadvantaged, vary, according to Census 20/20, a research project at the University of Arizona. Reasons include the home address not included in the census roster, a fear or distrust of government, language barriers, complex household relationships, and highly mobile populations with multiple addresses.

A Census Bureau analysis found the 2010 Census had a 2.1% undercount of Black people, which the bureau said “was not statistically different” from the 1.8% undercount in 2000. The Hispanic undercount was 1.5% in 2010 compared to 0.7% in 2000, the bureau reported.

Bureau officials estimated 16 million “omissions” in the 2010 Census but said that “about 6 million of those were likely counted in the census but couldn’t be verified in the post-enumeration survey.”

That would leave about 10 million residents who weren’t counted nationally.

But some researchers are predicting an even greater 2020 undercount. Last June, the Urban Institute predicted the undercount could be as high as 3.68% for Black people and 3.57% for Hispanics.

Ending the field work early could hurt vulnerable communities, said Dr. Louis Pol, a demographer at the University of Nebraska in Omaha. “During the summer,a study was done to get a sense of what would happen if we cut the count off perhaps sooner than we should and how it differentially affects people of color.”

The study, released Sept. 17 by statisticians Jonathan Auerbach and Steve Pierson, said an early cutoff could result in Texas, Florida, Arizona, Georgia, and North Carolina losing $500 million annually in federal funding for healthcare for its neediest residents.

The study also concluded that “if you stop it early, in all likelihood a few states would lose one member each in the House of Representatives,” said Pol, a former faculty member at what is now the University of Memphis.

“That is pretty significant. We are talking about people’s right to be represented at least somewhat proportionally in the House of Representatives.”

Tennessee, Arkansas and Mississippi are not in any danger of losing representation in the U.S. House.

Further loss expected

Some state funding, in addition to federal funds, is distributed annually based on population numbers.

In Tennessee, state-shared sales tax money is a major funding source for city and town governments. It is distributed based on the federal census population count rather than where the revenue is collected. County governments do not receive any state sales tax revenue directly.

Memphis received $53.6 million in state-shared sales tax revenue in the 2019 fiscal year, according to the city’s 2019 Comprehensive Annual Financial Report.

There could be another loss in addition to up to two House seats.

Shelby County is expected to lose more or all of the state Senate seat it now shares with Tipton County. That post, in District 32, is now held by Republican Paul Rose, who lives in Tipton County. Five state Senate districts are entirely in Shelby County.

On the issue of ending the census field count early, Pol said, “There is a real reason for the delay of (ending) the count. This is not a manufactured thing.”

The national administration has been calling for undocumented immigrants to be excluded from census, Pol said, but that is not what the Constitution says.

“Everyone is to be counted. … They shouldn’t be politicizing it. This is hard enough work without trying to make it harder. That is what is happening. They are making it harder.”

Jimmie Covington is a veteran Memphis reporter with lengthy experience covering governmental, school, and demographic issues. He has been writing about the census numbers in Memphis and Shelby County since the mid 1980s. He is now a writer with The Best Times, a monthly news magazine for people 50 and older.


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