U.S. Army soldiers board a bus in January 2020 at Fort Bragg, N.C., one of the military bases that will likely see population boosts in their 2020 census counts due to a change to how troops deployed abroad were counted.

U.S. Army soldiers board a bus in January 2020 at Fort Bragg, N.C., one of the military bases that will likely see population boosts in their 2020 census counts due to a change to how troops deployed abroad were counted. / AP

Tens of thousands of U.S. service members who were temporarily deployed abroad last year could help shift the balance of power in Congress and the Electoral College toward states with military installations after the release of 2020 census results.

Approximately 97,000 troops were serving stints overseas on Census Day — April 1, 2020 — Pentagon spokesperson Lisa Lawrence tells NPR. And for last year's national tally, the Census Bureau followed a new policy that counted those deployed troops as residents of the areas from which they were assigned away.

In 2018, the bureau announced this little-known change to where it tallies certain military employees serving overseas, as well as any family members living with them, for the country's head count. The once-a-decade census produces the numbers used for reallocating seats in the House of Representatives and votes in the Electoral College.

Previously, the numbers of all troops serving outside the country — including deployed service members who are usually stationed in the U.S. — were assigned to the states of the home addresses the troops gave when they first enlisted, also known as their "home of record." This policy began during the Vietnam War with the 1970 census. But it was not used in 1980 after the bureau determined the count of what it calls the "federally affiliated overseas population," which also includes civilian government employees and their families, was "much smaller" than the previous decade, according to an agency memo.

"Very small differences ... can be meaningful"

The agency decided to use records from the Defense Manpower Data Center, or DMDC, for a different way of counting deployed troops in 2020 after years of lawmakers and local leaders of military communities pushing the bureau to reconsider its criteria for determining a person's residence. Last May, the DMDC finished turning over the military files the bureau requested, Lawrence, the Pentagon spokesperson, confirms to NPR, after a delay due to security measures put in place during the Trump administration.

This change in counting service members could give some states with military bases or ports the population boost they need to keep or gain political influence for the next decade.

"Very small differences from state to state can be meaningful, and this has the potential to be that small difference for some states," says Rebecca Tippett, director of Carolina Demography at the Carolina Population Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "If you're on the fence of possibly getting a congressional seat or possibly losing a seat, every possible person counts."

Kim Brace, president of Election Data Services, projects that Florida and Texas, both home to multiple military installations, are on the brink of gaining more House seats and Electoral College votes.

But Brace warns that last year's head count was like no other U.S. census, making it even harder to predict how the numbers will actually shake out.

"You have not had in previous decades the impact of COVID," Brace says. "You have not had an administration — the Trump administration — that was so hostile to the census."

Trump officials cutting short the time for counting and their failed push for a citizenship question may have contributed to the undercounting of immigrants and people of color in the same states with boosted numbers from deployed troops.

A potential "wildcard"

The effect of counting deployed troops in the military communities where they usually live is not expected to be immediately clear after the bureau releases the first 2020 census results next week. As it did in 2010, the bureau is planning to put out a state-by-state count of all military employees serving outside the country, but the agency tells NPR in a statement that the new data table will not separate out the troops who are usually stationed in the U.S.

The uncertainty of the impact of the deployed troop counts makes this group a potential "wildcard" when each state's share of power is reapportioned, says Terri Ann Lowenthal, a consultant on census issues who was the former staff director of the House oversight subcommittee for the national count.

Lowenthal notes, however, that the coronavirus pandemic may have also caused unexpected shifts among other groups, including college students who left their campus dormitories because of the outbreak and may not have been counted in the college towns that the bureau considers their residence.

"The implications of counting these troops at their stateside address could be greater for redrawing legislative districts when the time comes," Lowenthal adds.

More troops, more money?

There may also be implications for the amount of investment military communities receive from the government and private sector over the next decade. With the 2020 census counting deployed troops as residents of the areas where they're usually stationed in the U.S., local leaders in places like North Carolina's Onslow County — home to the U.S. Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune — may be able to bring in more resources to their communities.

Some 47,000 Marines and sailors usually live on or around Camp Lejeune. But for the 2010 census, some were not counted as residents of the area because they had been sent off to serve stints in Iraq or Haiti and were not in the U.S. on April 1, 2010.

Glenn Hargett, an assistant manager for Onslow County, says the bureau's previous way of counting deployed troops may have contributed to undercounts a decade ago and made it more difficult for the community to get not only its share of the estimated $1.5 trillion a year in federal money that's guided by census data, but also attention from business leaders.

"We want businesses to locate here, and they look at our community and see that there's a lot of people that aren't being counted in the census," Hargett adds. "They don't take us seriously because that number is smaller than what might be the real number."

To help drive home what the census means for military communities, leaders from the II Marine Expeditionary Force at Camp Lejeune appeared in an online video last year.

"It's important that you are counted here," Sgt. Major Lonnie Travis said. "It benefits the quality of life for those who come after you. And it helps everyone in the community."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.