Illinois found out last week that it will lose another congressional seat, as new Census figures show the state experienced its first 10-year population loss in history.
This wasn’t unexpected, but here's what was: The population loss wasn't as bad as expected. Earlier resident estimates, not actual figures, said the state had lost about 200,000 people. They were off. The actual number put the loss at about 18,000.
The difference is no small matter, and here’s why: Illinois lawmakers may use population estimates to redraw legislative boundaries, rather than use the traditional decennial Census dataset.
Because of Covid and other factors, the Census Bureau won’t have the full localized data needed for redistricting until August or September. But in Illinois, Democrats who control the General Assembly have to draw legislative boundaries by June 30 or the work is turned over to an 8-member commission evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats.
We have always supported an independent group taking on the task of redistricting; unfortunately, what usually happens with the 8-member panel is there is a deadlock requiring the appointment of a ninth member. This raises the possibility Democrats could lose control. They don’t want that, so they’re considering using estimates to redraw boundaries by June 30. (Alternatively, there are some who believe the state could approach the courts for some leeway on the deadline.)
The release of Illinois’ real population figures demonstrate just how risky the Democrats' current path is. The Census Bureau’s Illinois estimates were off by 1.6%, and while that may not seem like much, it is one of the bigger gaps in the country. Also, as demographers know, the more localized the estimates, the greater chance for error.
In addition, legislative leaders continue to stonewall on the question of what set of numbers they’re planning to use. If they use data from the American Community Survey (which aren't even the Census Bureau's official population estimates) that is just inviting lawsuits. As the Chicago Tribune reported recently, a "number of groups advocating accuracy in counting the population, including racial and ethnic communities, found instances of wide variances when comparing the ACS estimates with actual 2010 census counts."
It’s true some states believe the Census data itself may be off, in part because of Covid challenges and the failure of some state leaders to aggressively promote the count. There also are questions being raised about a new Census Bureau policy intended to protect privacy, which critics say could distort the data.
However, Illinois leaders worked hard to count everybody and got better-than-expected results.
This is complicated, and it looks like all the potential choices have some pitfalls. But the priority among lawmakers in Springfield should be to use the best data possible, not rely on problematic numbers just to keep control of the process.