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Transplanted Minnesotans may jeopardize 8th congressional seat

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Snowbird Ray McGee
St. Paul resident Ray McGee and his dog, Tato, spend their winters in central California.
MPR Photo/Toni Randolph

When Census forms are mailed out next year, some Minnesotans won't be home to receive them--they'll be staying at their warm-weather addresses. Minnesota officials are concerned about where these "snowbirds" will be counted.

State Demographer Tom Gillaspy is among those worried about this season's snowbird migration. About $300 billion dollars in federal money gets divvied up to states each year based on census figures. And, more importantly, Gillapsy says, one of Minnesota's congressional seats is at stake. 

"We've had eight seats and we've held those eight seats since 1960, when all of our neighbors have seen declines," Gillaspy said. "We want to make sure everyone gets counted so we have enough population to keep that eighth congressional seat." 

Keeping that seat may come down to as few as 2,000 to 3,000 people. That's why state officials want to make sure they reach people like retiree Ray McGee. 

McGee leaves St. Paul for California every fall and will stay there until the end of April. He'll likely receive a census form at the place he stays out west, but he said he doesn't want to be counted as a Californian. 

"Because I own a home in Minnesota and I've lived in Minnesota for 40 years; it's where my professional community was and I regard myself as a Minnesotan," he said. "[I] would wish to count myself as a Minnesotan."

Photos from winter
St. Paul native Ray McGee shares photos of the central California area where he spends his winters.
MPR Photo/Toni Randolph

And according to Census rules, he should be counted as a Minnesotan because the census wants to count people at their usual residence. Dave Sheppard, with the U.S. Census Bureau, said a resident's usual residence is the place they live and sleep most of the time.

"If you're, say, at one residence for eight months and the other residence for four months, we'd like to count you where you live eight months out of the year, even if on census day, you're at the four-month-out-the-year place," he said. 

But if McGee fills out the form he receives at his California address, he'll be counted as a Californian. That's because this year the forms have a barcode that's tied to the address where they're mailed. That means a form mailed to a California address will count for the state of California no matter what.

Because the forms mailed to Minnesota addresses won't be forwarded, officials say the best way McGee and other snowbirds can be counted as Minnesotans is by not by filling out the census forms they'll receive at their winter homes. He recommends waiting until they return to Minnesota to fill out the form here. 

They can also get census forms without barcodes at one of the hundreds of Questionnaire Assistance Centers that will open across the country next spring. Or they can request blank forms directly from the Census Bureau. 

The Census doesn't identify snowbirds in its count, so no one knows how many there are in Minnesota. But state officials have launched an awareness campaign to help educate snowbirds about the census. 

State Demographer Tom Gillaspy
Tom Gillaspy is the Minnesota State Demographer.
MPR Photo/Toni Randolph

Retiree and snowbird Renalda Poser of Cushing said she knew the census was taking place next year, but she didn't know how her snowbird status would be considered. 

"I didn't have any clue at all, but I just happened to see it at the State Fair," she said. "I just happened to see this four-by-six card and it said, 'Snowbirds, as you go south for the winter, don't fill out the census form down at your temporary home.'" 

Pozer said after she got more information from the State Demographic Center, she volunteered to pass out flyers to fellow Minnesota snowbirds at their annual picnic in Arizona next February. 

"I'm certainly going to promote the fact that if we don't claim ourselves as Minnesotans, there's a possibility that we'll lose a representative. Our census counts for whether and how many representatives will represent us.