It could come down to less than one half of 1% of the population of Minnesota.
The state is just 25,554 people short of holding on to all eight congressional seats, according to recent population estimates released by the U.S. Census Bureau. Minnesota comes in behind New York but ahead of Ohio, California and Virginia on the list of states that grew in the past decade — but not enough to hold its current clout in Washington, D.C.
The numbers are a preview of the final census count, which will be used to redistribute seats in the U.S. House of Representatives through the once-a-decade process known as reapportionment. If Minnesota loses a seat, it will trigger a complex realignment of the state's political map — a fraught process likely to pit members of Congress against one another and scramble political dynamics in the seven districts that remain.
But it's currently unclear when we'll all know for sure. The final state-by-state population numbers are expected to be delayed well beyond a Dec. 31 statutory deadline, after one of the most chaotic population counts in the nation's history. And some congressional Democrats and watchdog groups are already questioning whether any of those numbers will be accurate.
"It's all chaos, uncertainty and delay," said Peter Wattson, who spent decades laboring over state political maps as a DFL Senate staffer. "When we start to get some real numbers, there are going to be lawsuits. This is not normal."
Census operations struggled amid budget constraints, technical glitches and safety concerns during the ongoing pandemic. The U.S. Census Bureau sought an April extension to deliver reapportionment, but President Donald Trump changed course over the summer, pushing for final numbers by the end of the year.
Meanwhile, uncertainty looms over a plan from the Trump administration to exclude immigrants living in the country without legal status from the count, a deviation from census tradition. Last week, the Supreme Court declined to immediately weigh in on the legality of the move. That decision could ultimately fall to the incoming Biden administration if reapportionment isn't completed by Inauguration Day.
But redistricting experts say Minnesota could possibly benefit from all of that chaos. While Minnesota's population is growing slower than some other states, it led the nation with a 75% self-response rate to the census. That could give Minnesota an edge over other states with a lower response rate.
There are other wild cards in the process, said State Demographer Susan Brower, including whether immigrants without legal status are included in the final count. Minnesota has a significantly smaller immigrant population than other states also on the cusp of losing a seat, such as California.
Then there are concerns about the overall accuracy of the count, particularly in catching people living in group settings like college campuses, prisons and nursing homes.
"That is something the Census Bureau is working through," Brower said. "When we have these close numbers of people gaining or losing seats in the thousands or the tens of thousands, the quality of that count can really make the difference in keeping or losing a seat."
Minnesotans who track redistricting closely are hoping for another close save for the state's current eight-seat lineup. Losing a seat would mean 12% less representation in the U.S. House, and the clout that helps bring home federal funding for schools, highways and health care.
It would also heighten the stakes of the redistricting process, a task that falls to state legislators every 10 years. After the 1960 census, the last time Minnesota lost a congressional seat, it took two special sessions of the Legislature to get the new lines drawn.
If Minnesota does lose a seat, the seven remaining districts would need to grow by roughly 100,000 people each.
Even in recent redistricting years when Minnesota held steady at eight seats, the process of redrawing political lines has been highly charged. Todd Rapp, a DFL political consultant who worked with the state party during redistricting in the early 1990s, looks no further than his own Woodbury neighborhood to see the consequences.
A decade ago, his suburban community was part of Minnesota's Sixth Congressional District, then represented by conservative firebrand Michele Bachmann. But after new census population numbers shifted boundaries across the state, his neighborhood landed in the Fourth District, represented by Democratic Rep. Betty McCollum.
"The new maps get drawn and all of a sudden we become part of the second most liberal congressional seat in the state," Rapp said.
In the past, Republicans have considered combining Minneapolis and St. Paul into one compact congressional district.
That would pit McCollum against Rep. Ilhan Omar, her fellow Democrat in the Fifth District. Democrats see a more likely combination in western Minnesota's Seventh District and northern Minnesota's Eighth District, the state's two slowest-growing. That would pair Rep.-elect Michelle Fischbach and Rep. Pete Stauber, in two districts that Republicans have only recently claimed after decades of Democratic representation.
But Minnesota's long tradition of divided government has also meant most maps drawn by the Legislature are ultimately vetoed by the governor, kicking the process to the courts. Courts have tended to favor maps with the least amount of change as possible, said Gregg Peppin, a former Republican House staffer who worked on redistricting.
"They would point to the election and say this is what the voters came up with, pretty evenly divided representation in Congress and the Legislature," he said. "They don't like to upset the apple cart too much."
Star Tribune staff writer Mary Jo Webster contributed to this story.