The Census Bureau’s new system for counting troops deployed abroad could make a difference in states such as North Carolina and Texas, which have sizable military populations and are already poised to gain congressional seats.
Deciding which state gets the last seat in Congress during reapportionment could well come down to a few thousand — or a few hundred — people. And the Census Bureau’s new system for counting U.S. troops abroad could make the difference in the count that starts next month.
Federal law mandates the Census Bureau count all U.S. residents, but exactly how the agency counts them can have a major impact on the distribution of about $1.5 trillion in federal funding as well as 435 seats in Congress.
In years past, the census counted all military members who were serving overseas as residents of whatever home state they listed on their Pentagon paperwork. That’s changed for the 2020 count: the Census Bureau will distinguish between military members stationed abroad long-term — in Germany or Japan, for example — and personnel deployed temporarily, such as a months-long assignment in Kuwait.
That means a soldier deployed abroad from, say, Fort Bragg, will be counted in North Carolina where the military installation is housed, even if the service member listed Florida as an official residence.
The Census Bureau used to attribute deployed personnel back to their “home of record,” which often was Florida, Texas or another state that does not have income taxes. That old counting method may have cost North Carolina a congressional seat in 2010, said Bob Coats, the governor’s census liaison at the Office of State Budget and Management.
It also may have lowered the federal funds sent to military areas, and made local planning for things like schools more difficult — even if the change didn’t shift congressional seats.
“We don’t want to get involved in the tax issue at all, and where you are counted for the census won’t impact that,” Coats said. “We want you counted here so we can plan for you.”
Census Bureau officials made the change in 2018 as it finalized its counting rules and after pressure from North Carolina and other states to count temporarily deployed personnel differently. Previously, the census counted all troops abroad back to their U.S. “home of record” for apportionment purposes — simply adding them to the total population of a state.
The change for this decade now will add deployed personnel in their community of residence in local census data, not just the total state population. During the rulemaking process for the change, commenters noted that “surges” of deployments could result in significant undercounts in military communities, making it more difficult to plan for schools, housing, transportation and other resources.
While the Census Bureau’s change includes all government employees on temporary duty, several experts said the deployed troops would be the largest affected group. The Defense Department stopped publishing data about the number of personnel deployed abroad in December 2017, when the nation had about 70,000 troops abroad.
The states where the change could have the largest impact are those with the largest military populations: Texas, California and North Carolina. They’re also the states expecting a shift in congressional representation.
Reapportionment expert Kim Brace of Election Data Services said the Census Bureau’s new method could affect the final count of congressional seats once the dust settles from the 2020 census.
Other population shifts have put several states close to the margin for gaining or losing a congressional seat, including Alabama, California, Florida, North Carolina and Texas. Brace said the new method could be a make-or-break factor for divvying up the last few congressional seats.
“There are a whole bunch of different scenarios that we can only guesstimate right now but any one of them are possible,” he said.
Decisions about how to count military members have made the difference before, Brace said. The Census Bureau’s decision in 2000 to attribute military personnel stationed abroad back to their “home of record” helped give North Carolina the 435th seat in Congress that year by 856 people.
Utah challenged the Census Bureau’s methodology for counting overseas personnel and lost at the Supreme Court.
Then, in 2010, North Carolina missed out on gaining another congressional seat, which Coats partially attributes to the Census Bureau’s method for counting deployed personnel. The Defense Department deployed several units from the state to Haiti following the earthquake that year. Those service members were then attributed to their “home of record,” rather than to North Carolina communities such as Fort Bragg or Camp Lejeune.
“The local folks know the deployed people are coming back, but they don’t have the hard census numbers to prove it,” Coats said.
It’s unclear whether the new counting method will help Texas or Florida on the whole. While both states have large military populations, many other troops keep their home-of-record there for income tax purposes. That means for the 2020 census, many service members with paperwork tying them to those two states instead will be counted at their military base communities elsewhere.
Brace said unknowns like undercounts — previous census efforts have missed a million or more people — may make the attribution of troops based off of Defense Department paperwork determinative.
“There are a whole bunch of moving parts this time that we haven’t had to deal with before, as well as the general theory of people are much more reluctant to deal with the federal government than they were 10 years ago or 20 years ago,” he said.
But other issues lurking in 2020 census preparations may have a larger overall impact on the final distribution of congressional seats, said Beth Jarosz of the Population Reference Bureau.
“Honestly, I think undercount overcount issues are going to be a bigger deciding factor than this particular piece of residency rule changes,” she said.
Jarosz said the Census Bureau’s new approach may have a larger impact on the flow of federal funds and planning for local communities.
She pointed out that communities with a significant Navy presence, such as Coronado, Calif., lose 10,000 or more people when a carrier group sets out to sea. But those people will now be counted back to where they actually live rather than what's listed on their Pentagon paperwork.
“If 12,000 people are gone for six months but coming right back, you are still going to need schools and roads and resources,” Jarosz said.
Rep. Richard Hudson, R-N.C., who represents the Fort Bragg area, pointed out that even if the change does not have an impact on North Carolina’s congressional delegations, it will still help people at the local level. Those communities will have better data, like how many students to expect at schools and where investment opportunities are needed, he said.
“I think what the Census Bureau has done is the right thing, and it is going to have a huge impact on us in North Carolina and North Carolina’s 8th District,” Hudson told CQ Roll Call.