Voting & the Census Crisis

Voting is rightfully regarded as a crucial activity in the United States. While our voter turnout rate as a nation is relatively low, the majority of Americans still go to the polls in major election years. We celebrate those who fought to extend the right to vote to women and African-Americans, honoring the most famous heroes on coins or with national holidays.Voting can even be exciting. Political races are inescapable, dominating the news cycle leading up to an election, and well over a year in advance in the case of presidential elections. Election Day is a major event, and the act of voting is a fulfilling social activity: An act of good citizenship performed on a crisp fall day in the company of neighbors, rewarded with a bright ‘I VOTED’ sticker.

Conversely, the U.S. Decennial Census does not have these attractive features. It is a long, unspectacular, often invisible process devoid of personalities. While mandated by the Constitution and understood to be a useful endeavor, it is not treated with the reverence or urgency that citizens show the right to vote. Unlike voting, it is a lonely and tedious activity. There is no ‘Census Day’, bringing neighbors to their local polling place in droves and drawing breathless media coverage. The Census is experienced as paperwork, completed alone in one’s home. It offers the solitude and dreariness of filing taxes, without the potential for a surprise refund.

This lack of interest may explain why current threats to the 2020 Census have received considerably less media coverage and public awareness than current controversies surrounding voter identification laws, gerrymandering, and possible election tampering. While those important stories deserve all of the coverage they have received (and probably more), the issues plaguing the 2020 Census need to be more widely known. Both the threats to the Census and the long-term implications of a failed or hamstrung Census are very real, and the potential impacts for basic voting rights are significant.

Attempting to count 300 million people across an enormous and diverse landmass is obviously a difficult task. The 2020 iteration represents a unique moment in the history of the Census because it is to be the first time a number of new technologies and statistical methods are used to measure and describe the population. It is supposed to mark a shift from mailed paper forms and door-to-door volunteer interviews to voluntary online surveys and ‘big data’ analyses. This is an exciting shift, offering the potential for a far richer and more cost-effective Census, but also a difficult one. The Census faces important questions regarding the accuracy, security, efficiency, and feasibility of its new techniques.       

But, at this crucial juncture, the agency is in disarray. Director John Thompson resigned at the end of June, after facing criticism and resistance from Congress regarding the budgetary needs of the agency. Legislators have responded to cost increases at the agency—necessary expenditures for testing phases that will allow for a cheaper Census in the long run—by failing to meet the agency’s funding requests. Current 2018 budget proposals from Congressional and White House leadership call for about $1.5 billion in Census funding, 16.7% less than the $1.8 billion figure the Bureau requested for its operations. The previous year’s budget appropriated nearly 10% fewer funds than requested. As a result, important testing operations have been cancelled and the opening of regional Census centers and awarding of IT contracts have been delayed during crucial years leading up to the count. The Government Accountability Office recently declared the Census to be a ‘high-risk’ program because of its financial woes.

All of these developments threaten the ability of the Census to obtain an accurate count of the American population, which has tremendous impacts on voting rights. The primary purpose of the decennial Census—the reason for its existence, its Constitutional mandate—is to determine the population in each state for the apportioning of seats in the House of Representatives and votes in the Electoral College. The most extreme potential negative effects of a poor Census relate to these purposes. An inaccurate count could shift a congressional representative and electoral college vote from an undercounted state to another for at least a decade. And if the quality issues with the 2020 Census are significant enough, Congress could cite such concerns as justification for avoiding reapportioning seats at all. As outlandish as it sounds, this actually happened after the 1920 Census.

It is more likely that an inaccurate Census will dilute the voting power of citizens in districts at the state and local level. States often redraw their district maps following each Census. Under the ‘one person, one vote’ principle—established by the Supreme Court in Baker v. Carr and Reynolds v. Sims, after years of legal challenges to unequally populated districts—states must aim to create legislative districts that are roughly equivalent in population. Individuals whose districts are undercounted by the Census will have a vote with less impact on their local election than voters in districts whose counts are accurate or inflated. Moreover, minorities and low-income individuals are those most likely to be undercounted in any Census. A great deal of the Census Bureau’s expenses go towards more involved efforts to count these hard-to-reach communities, so a funding shortage could further undercount—and by extension under-represent—them. Census data on population, race, and voting habits are also important tools for discovering and fighting discriminatory practices like racial gerrymandering or voter ID laws. Civil rights activists understand these important implications of a failed Census: The NAACP recently sued the U.S. Department of Commerce, which houses the Census Bureau, for mismanaging its operations.

What can you do to help support the Census? First, call your representatives. Let them know that you think that funding the Census properly and appointing a new head of the Census Bureau are crucial priorities. Second, take action on the local level to ensure a successful Census in your area. One urgent way to help with this is to contact your local government and encourage leadership to participate in the Local Update of Census Addresses (LUCA), an effort to correct address issues in advance of the Census. Check here to see if your city, county, or state is participating. They have until December 15, 2017 to register for LUCA. You should also reach out to advocacy groups in your area, particularly those that represent the interests of minority or disadvantaged groups. Such organizations can often better mobilize to advocate for legislative action, and will be able to help during the actual Census by engaging their community members to respond to the survey. Other helpful action steps can be found here.

Perhaps most importantly, spread the word about the crisis at the Census Bureau—tell your friends, family, and coworkers. The Census affects us all. It influences electoral matters, but also determines funding for government activities, informs business decisions, and aids research. Increasing awareness of the importance of the Census and the threats facing it is a big step towards protecting it, and our democracy.

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