California officials estimate that the U.S. Census Bureau failed to count 1.5 million of the state's residents, a discrepancy that if true could cost the state billions of dollars in federal aid over the next decade and perhaps an increase in its representation in Congress.
On Tuesday, the Census Bureau released national and state population figures that declared California to have 37.3 million residents, 10% more than in 2000. That growth — based on mailed-in surveys and door-to-door interviews by census takers — roughly mirrored the nation's, but meant that for the first time since California became a state in 1850 it did not grow enough to add another member to its congressional delegation.
But according to the state Department of Finance, the state's population was 38.8 million on July 1. That figure is drawn from birth and death statistics, school-enrollment data, driver's license address changes, tax returns and Medicare enrollment, a set of data points that provides a "more refined" picture of the population, according to H.D. Palmer, a finance department spokesman.
The extra 1.5 million people could have meant the addition of at least one seat in the House of Representatives — a moot point because of a 1999 Supreme Court ruling that said reapportionment must be based on the strict census head count.
However, the court left open the possibility of using adjusted figures to distribute federal funds that are determined by census count — now more than $400 billion annually. The massive sums at stake — at a time when state and local governments are facing annual, multibillion-dollar deficits — raises the prospect of a court battle fought by Gov.-elect Jerry Brown and state and local officials.
"It cuts away at our share of the $400 billion a year that the federal government doles out to states. It made it so for the first time California didn't actually grow its congressional delegation, therefore we're not going to have as strong a voice as we could have. It puts us at a disadvantage," said Assembly Speaker John Pérez, a Los Angeles Democrat. "I'm looking seriously to see what happens in the post-count scenario, into every option for going to get the kind of adjustment that reflects our growth."
A spokesman for Brown said the governor-elect would review the matter after taking office. Attempts to reach Census Bureau officials Thursday were unsuccessful.
Since the once-a-decade count began in 1790, no census has captured every person living on American soil.
"In every census, there are people who are missed and also some people who are counted twice," said Hans Johnson, director of research at the Public Policy Institute of California. "After each census, generally there's a debate and there's some technical work that goes on that tries to determine what the likely size of the undercount was…. Right now, it's still early. It's hard to say."
A 2001 study by the Democratic members of the U.S. Census Monitoring Board found that the 2000 tally missed half a million Californians, potentially costing the state $1.3 billion over the ensuing decade.
The reasons for the discrepancy between state and federal figures will not be known until the Census Bureau releases more detailed data breakdowns in 2011 and 2012, Palmer said.
A key question, however, is whether any undercount was uniform across the states. A uniform undercount would not affect federal funding since the states' relative proportions would remain the same. An undercount of a particular population, however, could affect some states and not others.
"This is a real can of worms," said census historian Margo Anderson of the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee. If the error rate "is stark enough to show substantial inter-state differences, you can bet there will be governors and state legislatures squawking all over the country."
Anderson, the coauthor of "Who Counts? The Politics of Census-Taking in Contemporary America," said state lawsuits are a given after the decennial count, but she could recall none alleging an undercount that had been successful.
However, the Census Bureau also updates local population estimates annually for the purposes of federal funding, and cities and counties have successfully challenged these figures. In 2008, San Francisco appealed its 2007 estimate, and the Census Bureau agreed that it had underestimated the city's population by 34,209.
Local officials said they would do whatever it takes to ensure their populations are counted accurately.
"If there is evidence of an undercount, the city will strongly consider all options for us to receive our fair share of federal funding," said Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.