The fate of one of Minnesota's congressional seats could come down to a couple thousand people, the size of a large high school. Population estimates show four states are vying for one congressional seat. If current trends continue, Minnesota will lose out. "From what we know right now, we would be in line to lose our eighth congressional seat, but it's so close," according to Tom Gillaspy, the Minnesota state demographer. He's in charge of studying Minnesota's population. Gillaspy says data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows that Minnesota would lose a congressional seat, and the perks that come with it, if the census count were taken today.
Seats in the U.S. House of Representatives are apportioned based on the size of the country's population. If the current trend holds, southern states will gain congressional seats after the 2010 census. Those seats have to come from somewhere, meaning states in the Upper Midwest and the Northeast will probably lose out.
Gillaspy says Minnesota's population estimates put the state in competition with Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina.
"The difference is very, very small," he says. "The difference is a difference between those four states of about 2,000 people. That's easily within any estimating error and easily within a slight modification in growth rates."
Growth rate patterns and population estimates can draw blank stares from the wonkiest of policy wonks but there is plenty at stake. Minnesota has had eight congressional seats since 1960. A loss of a seat would mean more than just one fewer politician.
Larry Jacobs, director of the Center for Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute, says Minnesota's political influence would drop because there would be fewer voices arguing for the state in Congress. The state would also lose an electoral vote in presidential elections and would see less money from the federal government.
The feds use census figures to decide how much money is spent on things like Medicare and Medicaid.
"The size of the state, in terms of number of people, is very important for influence in Washington and for the support that we get from the national government for lots of different programs. There is probably no Minnesotan who would not be affected by the loss of a congressional seat and a drop in the population of the state," Jacobs says.
The issue is so serious that the state will spend $300,000 over the next two years on ways to ensure that every Minnesotan is counted during the 2010 census. The hope is that promoting the census and helping with the count would mean the Census Bureau would do a better job of counting every person living in Minnesota than it does in other states. The campaign has worked in the past since Minnesota has had the most accurate count in the past two census counts.
The state's two major political parties are also closely watching the situation and planning accordingly.
Andy O'Leary, executive director of the Minnesota DFL, says his party is mostly focused on the 2008 elections, but is also watching and worrying that a seat could vanish in future years.
"There's two election cycles between now and then, so that's a little bit more of our focus right now," he says. "But we are keeping this in mind. We're talking to experts on this and we're talking to some of our partners on how we're going to deal with the potential loss of a congressional seat."
The political stakes also get much higher if Minnesota loses a congressional seat. The state Legislature and the governor are required to redraw the political maps for Congress and the state Legislature following the census. Those in power would decide, for example, which incumbents would have to run against each other.
Ron Carey, chair of the Minnesota Republican Party, says the ramifications go far beyond two election cycles.
"The party that does hold the legislative chambers and the governor's office will have an extra leg up on setting the legislative boundaries for not just the next few years, but for the entire 2010 and 2020 decade," Carey says. That has some major implications and ramifications as to public policy for the state of Minnesota for the next 10 to 15 years."
It is possible that all this hand-wringing could be just that. State Demographer Tom Gillaspy said population estimates projected that Minnesota would lose a congressional seat in the mid-1980s. But he said the state's economy improved, while the economies in other state dipped. He said a confluence of economic or natural factors could change the estimate in 2010.