Rhode Island's efforts to encourage people to fill out the 2020 census may have worked too well, with the U.S. Census Bureau releasing a survey Thursday showing an overcount that saved a congressional seat.
The bureau said residents in eight states were overcounted during the once-a-decade head count that is used to allocate political power and federal funding. In Rhode Island and Minnesota, overcounts appear to have saved them from losing congressional seats. Six states had significant undercounts of their populations.
Rhode Island's 5% overcount translates to more than 55,000 residents. It would have lost a seat if 19,000 fewer residents had been counted, according to Election Data Services.
Rhode Island had a statewide committee that worked to ensure every resident was counted in the census. The committee encouraged so many community groups to talk about the census at events and distribute literature when the pandemic forced events to be cancelled, some people may have filled it out once, forgot and filled it out again when they were encouraged to do so, John Marion, who was on the committee, said Thursday.
“It could be that getting people excited to participate resulted in them filling it out twice,” said Marion, executive director of the government watchdog group Common Cause Rhode Island.
People were given more time to fill out the census because of the pandemic, which meant they also had more time to forget that they responded and possibly respond again, he said. There are certainly no indicators it was fraud, he added.
Marion said two other states with overcounts, New York and Minnesota, also invested heavily in community-based outreach.
Rhode Island Republican Party National Committeeman Steve Frias criticized what he described as “aggressive census counting tactics,” saying the count will further undermine public confidence in government. The state's members of Congress are Democrats.
“Democracy only works if people trust the system,” Frias said in a statement. “Double counting 55,000 people in order to hold on to a congressional seat destroys that trust.”
People can be counted more than once for several reasons, such as children of divorced parents who share custody or people with vacation homes.
Demographers and political experts warned for years that the nation’s geographically smallest state would lose a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives as its population stagnated and other states grew. That's why many people were surprised in April 2021 when the Census Bureau said the state’s population grew enough for it to retain its two seats in Congress.
The bureau's figures showed Rhode Island's population increased by 4.3%, from about 1.05 million residents in the 2010 census to nearly 1.1 million in 2020, the agency reported last year.
“We're essentially the lucky beneficiary of a statistical anomaly,” Marion said. “And as a result, we'll have more representation in Congress for 10 years.”
The offices of the state's two congressmen did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday.