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COMMENTARY

What the census ‘overcount’ means — and doesn’t — for Rhode Island

The Post-Enumeration Survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that Rhode Island was overcounted by approximately 5.05%. But there are several caveats to that number.

US Census Bureau map showing states with overcounts and undercounts in the 2020 census.Handout

In May, the Census Bureau released some new numbers that made headlines in Rhode Island because of an “overcount” of our population in the 2020 Census. We want to explain what that does and does not mean for the state of Rhode Island.

The numbers came from the Post-Enumeration Survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau every 10 years. It’s part of their quality control program, aimed at improving the performance of future censuses by identifying who might have been overcounted and undercounted. In March, the Bureau released data from the same survey estimating that Black and Hispanic people were undercounted nationwide.

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The Post-Enumeration Survey estimates that Rhode Island was overcounted by approximately 5.05 percent. But there are several caveats to that number. It’s an estimate of census coverage from a survey and is itself subject to error. And it was only measuring the accuracy of the count of households. The Post-Enumeration Survey does not include what the Census Bureau calls “group quarters,” including dorms and nursing homes.

All of those caveats mean that the overcount estimate is not precise. Was the overcount enough for us to retain our additional congressional seat? No one can say for certain. There were 13 other states with statistically significant overcounts or undercounts, and the formula used to determine how many seats Rhode Island receives would have to account for changes in their populations as well.

But that is all just conjecture because in 1999 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that estimates, like the ones created as part of the Post-Enumeration Survey, cannot be used to change the “actual enumeration” of the census. The court’s decision rested on federal law and the Constitution.

A Rhode Island GOP official blamed the state’s effort to promote participation in the 2020 census for the overcount. This is like blaming the cheerleaders for an error in the score of a basketball game.

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Like almost every other state in the nation, and with Census Bureau’s guidance, Rhode Island formed a statewide Complete Count Committee to encourage participation in the 2020 census.

The Rhode Island committee did not do the actual counting. More than 65% of Rhode Island households completed the census themselves. Thousands of Census Bureau enumerators knocked on doors of those households that did not fill it out. By law, only sworn federal employees could assist Rhode Islanders as they filled out their questionnaires.

The Post-Enumeration Survey showed that every state had some households that were likely overcounted and households that were undercounted. According to the Census Bureau, an overcount can be the result of various scenarios such as a child of divorced parents being counted in two households, or college students being counted by their parents at home as well as at their college dorm. One likely scenario in Rhode Island is the thousands of people who fled the pandemic and were counted mistakenly at their summer homes.

The Census Bureau has sophisticated methods for sifting through the submissions and removing duplicate entries. For reasons we do not know, despite those systems, Rhode Island is still estimated to have a net overcount. This is not the first time — in 2000, there were 22 states with statistically significant overcounts.

Rhode Island was a textbook example of the community working together with the Census Bureau to encourage participation in the decennial count. This level of collaboration was critical in 2020, given that this was the first census conducted online, counting occurred during a global pandemic, and there was widespread and intense public fear based on political rhetoric. There is a lot we can learn from our outreach efforts in order to be ready for the next census, and of course we must always strive for the most accurate count possible, but we remain grateful to the many partners and leaders who worked together to educate Rhode Islanders about the census.

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John Marion and Jessica David were members of the Rhode Island Complete Count Committee. Marion is Executive Director of Common Cause Rhode Island.