A significantly higher population count for New Jersey allows the state to keep its current complement of 12 U.S. House members and also put the state 10th in line for gaining an additional representative, according to Monday’s release of 2020 census data.
The U.S. Census Bureau counted 9,288,994 people living in New Jersey as of April 1, 2020. Another 5,499 mostly military and their family members from the state were living overseas, for a total of 9,294,493 used to apportion seats in the House of Representatives.
New Jersey’s official count represents an increase of 4.5%, or about 398,000, higher than the bureau’s estimate of the state’s 2020 population. While estimates and counts are not directly comparable, the difference is significant. The bureau only underestimated the nation’s population by less than 1%.
New Jersey had not been expected to lose a congressional seat this year, having lost one a decade ago. But the size of the state’s population increase was unexpected. New Jersey’s resident population grew by 497,000 people since the 2010 count. That 5.7% increase was larger than either neighboring New York or Pennsylvania.
An undercount of Black, Hispanic residents?
Despite that, some advocates wondered whether there still may have been an undercount of Black residents, Hispanic residents and others living in the state’s traditionally hard-to-count areas.
“It’s too early to say whether New Jersey had an undercount, but broadly speaking, the national data and New Jersey specific data suggest that state, local and nonprofit efforts to increase response rate around the Census resulted in improved response rates throughout New Jersey compared with the rest of the nation,” said Peter Chen, policy counsel for Advocates for Children of New Jersey (ACNJ), which coordinated the census efforts of a number of groups and nonprofits. “All our hard work paid off.”
Gov. Phil Murphy thanked the advocates, as well as Secretary of State Tahesha Way and the Complete Count Commission members who worked to boost the state’s response rate and residents who answered the survey.
“Not only did we gain nearly half a million residents, but we also ensured that our representation in Washington would be unchanged,” he said.
Because the state’s population grew and its number of House seats did not, the number of people represented by federal lawmakers will increase by 5.5% to almost 775,000 for each House member. For state senators and Assembly members, the figure is 232,000.
But what Monday’s data release does not provide is the raw data needed to redraw boundary lines to reflect this larger population. No municipal or block counts, nor counts by race, ethnicity, age or any other factors, were released. Census officials said they planned to release those by Sept. 30, much later than usual as a result of operations being paused due to the coronavirus pandemic. And unlike in past years, where New Jersey and Virginia got their results early because both have state-level elections this year, all states are to get their counts at the same time, officials said.
In a typical year following a census, a 10-member bipartisan commission would have likely already redrawn state legislative district lines — no doubt with the input of an unbiased 11th member — for this year’s elections. But with COVID-19 making it clear census officials would be unable to give the state its count in time, lawmakers put a question on the ballot that voters approved to delay the process until after New Jersey receives its detailed count data. The Democrats and Republicans on the committee have been named, but the brunt of their work is likely to have to wait until next fall.
New strategies to promote filling out the census
To promote filling out the census, New Jersey nonprofits made an all-out push using some creative methods during the pandemic, which ravaged New Jersey earlier than many other states. The state spent some $9 million, and philanthropic groups spent another $3 million. Still, grassroots organizations feared at times that their work might not be enough. Ultimately, about 67% of households filled out the census, beating the 2010 rate and the national average of 64%.
“A global pandemic, destructive wildfires, the most active hurricane season on record and civil unrest across the country” all forced census officials to revamp their efforts last year, said Gina Raimondo, U.S. Secretary of Commerce. Despite these “unprecedented challenges,” she described the count as “complete and accurate.”
While it’s unclear whether the response made a difference, New York state had a 61% response rate and is one of seven states that lost a seat. Census officials said that had New York’s population been just 89 people higher, the state would have kept its seat.
The other states that each will lose a seat are California, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Among those, only West Virginia and Illinois had actual population declines since 2010, of 3.2% and 0.1%, respectively. Texas will gain two seats, while Colorado, Florida, Montana, North Carolina and Oregon will each gain one. States gaining seats typically grew faster.
Congressional apportionment is constitutionally required once a decade to account for population changes to provide roughly equal representation for all Americans. Nationwide, population rose by 7.4%, the second smallest growth rate in U.S. history, said Ron Jarmin, acting director of the census bureau.
Brandon McKoy, president of New Jersey Policy Perspective, a progressive think tank, used the opportunity to challenge Republicans and “anti-tax zealots” who talk about people fleeing New Jersey that “NJ *isn’t* hemorrhaging residents.”