The census is America’s largest civic event, the only one that involves everyone in the country, young and old, citizen and noncitizen, rich and poor—or at least it’s supposed to. It’s been conducted every 10 years since 1790, when US Marshals first swore an oath to undertake “a just and perfect enumeration” of the population. The census determines how $675 billion in federal funding is allocated to states and localities each year for things like health care, schools, public housing, and roads; how many congressional seats and electoral votes each state receives; and how states will redraw local and federal voting districts. Virtually every major institution in America relies on census data, from businesses looking for new markets to the US military tracking the needs of veterans. The census lays the groundwork for the core infrastructure of our democracy, bringing a measure of transparency and fairness to how representation and resources are allocated across the country.
But with the Trump administration in charge, voting rights advocates fear the undercount could be amplified, shifting economic resources and political power toward rural, white, and Republican communities. The census is scheduled to begin on April 1, 2020, in the middle of the presidential election season. Of all the ways democracy is threatened under President Donald Trump—a blind eye to Russian meddling in elections, a rollback of voting rights, a disregard for checks and balances—an unfair and inaccurate census could have the most dramatic long-term impact. “It’s one of those issues that’s often the least sexy, least discussed in certain corners, and yet the ramifications for communities of color and vulnerable communities are so high in terms of what’s at stake for economic power and political power,” says Vanita Gupta, who led the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division under President Barack Obama and now directs the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.
A “perfect storm” is threatening the 2020 census, says Terri Ann Lowenthal, a former staff director for the House Subcommittee on Census and Population. Budget cuts enacted by the Trump administration and the Republican Congress forced the bureau to cancel crucial field tests in 2017 and 2018. The bureau’s director resigned last June, and the administration has yet to name a full-time director or deputy director. The next census will also be the first to rely on the internet. The Census Bureau will mail households a postcard with instructions on how to fill out the form online; if they don’t respond, it will send field-workers, known as enumerators, to knock on their doors. But in an effort to save money, there will be 200,000 fewer enumerators than in 2010, increasing the likelihood that households without reliable internet access will go uncounted. Enumerators will carry tablets instead of paper forms, and the reliance on technology raises cybersecurity fears in the wake of high-profile hacks and foreign election interference.
“They’re putting together the census under a pall of uncertainty,” says Kenneth Prewitt, who directed the 2000 census. “How much money, who’s going to be in charge, what are we going to do on the core questionnaire itself? To do that under such a level of uncertainty is literally unprecedented.”
And then, on Monday night, the Trump administration dropped the biggest bombshell of all. The Commerce Department, which oversees the Census Bureau, announced that it would include a question about US citizenship on the census for the first time since 1950. Civil rights groups say the move will cause immigrants, particularly undocumented ones, to avoid responding to the census for fear of being reported to immigration authorities. The result will be a massive undercount of the Latino population, leading to reduced political power and federal resources for places like Fresno. The state of California, which has the country’s largest immigrant population, quickly filed a lawsuit against the administration over the question. [Continue reading…]
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