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Young people demonstrated outside the Supreme Court in June 2019, protesting the Trump administration’s attempt to put a citizenship question on the 2020 Census. Photo by J. Scott Applewhite/ AP/ Shutterstock

People & Places

Who Counts?

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While the decennial Census does not technically occur until 2020, the constitutionally required effort to count each and every person in the U.S. is already underway.

The effort will shape decisions over how $675 billion in federal funds is allocated, and how democratically elected districts are apportioned at every level of government.

It is facing myriad challenges, including privacy concerns, potential scams, misinformation campaigns, and longstanding attempts to deliberately undercount people of color to maintain disproportionate political power.

The clock is already ticking to get it right.

“People who are undercounted are underrepresented. And people who are undercounted are underserved,” said Lily Griego, a state coordinator with the U.S. Census Bureau, at a presentation to the Denver City Council in late July.

The core purpose of the Census is to count all “persons,” according to the U.S. Constitution. But its entanglement in battles around representation, equality and political power over the last two centuries show the Census has never been that simple.

The recent, failed attempt by the Trump administration to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census is the latest in a long history of efforts to suppress responses from immigrants and people of color, ultimately for political gain.

“The true aim, as the files of the man who devised the strategy proved, was a drive to preserve a majority-white electorate by giving state Republican lawmakers the tools and the data they need to gerrymander out noncitizens and nonwhites out of fair representation and fair apportionment,” wrote Jamelle Bouie in The New York Times.

“The underlying theory is the same in both cases. If you’re white, you are entitled to full political equality. If you’re not, you aren’t.”

A tally of political power

The idea of a census and counting inhabitants is not uniquely American. “America, however, was the first country to directly tie its census to political power,” wrote Ariel Aberg-Riger, in a visual story for City Lab.

The first U.S. Census was conducted in 1790. It included six questions, and tallied 3.9 million people—roughly equivalent to the current combined population of the Denver, Aurora, Colorado Springs and Boulder metro areas.

The Census has evolved into an expansive data-collection enterprise used to inform and shape critical decisions. These include drawing congressional and state legislative districts, school districts and voting precincts; distributing federal dollars to states; informing planning decisions of federal, tribal, state and local governments; and informing organizational decisions for community groups and nonprofit organizations. Businesses also use the Census in various ways, such as to inform where they locate, what a particular market might look like, what demographic trends may suggest about a community and other useful information.

“The Census Bureau is always out in the world, but a lot of it is invisible,” said Kaye Kavanagh, Census director for Denver’s Office of Human Rights and Community Partnerships, during the Denver City Council presentation in July.

The Census Bureau does conduct other more frequent, supplemental information-gathering programs, such as the annual American Community Survey, and the Economic Census, every five years. However, the decennial Census is responsible for counting everyone and shaping districts at all levels of government, as well as establishing the number of electoral votes for each state.

How the Census works

At the committee presentation in July, Lily Griego asked, “How do we meet the needs of our community and what does our community look like?” The mechanics of how this is answered are quite complicated—and the process has already begun for the 2020 Census.

Test questionnaires were distributed to half a million households this summer, and nationwide neighborhood canvassing is being conducted to help determine “who is responding and why, and who is not responding and why,” said Griego.

For the first time, 2020 Census questionnaires will not just be available for completion via the mail and in-person, but also by phone and internet. People can submit responses in English and 12 other languages.

“We pride ourselves on being the number one data gatherer in the nation,” Griego added, noting concerns Americans voice about data privacy. “We are sworn an official oath—anybody who works for the U.S. Census takes an oath for life to protect this information.”

“My biggest fear is that people won’t believe us when we explain [privacy measures] because of the social climate,” said Rosemary Rodriguez in an interview. Rodriguez is executive director of Together We Count, an outreach project to ensure a fair and equal census count for hard-to-reach constituencies.

Federal law protects the confidentiality of individual information, and penalties for violating the Census oath can be five years in prison and/or a $250,000 fine. Data is also de-identified, aggregated and only ever released to other agencies in a statistical format without any personal information. Safeguards are also being implemented to identify and combat any potential misinformation or scam efforts.

“We are worried about misinformation campaigns, but we’re trying to get in front of that,” said Kavanagh in the city council presentation. “We want to make sure if someone is spoofing the Census, that those [forms] are not filled out, and we can figure out what that is.”

The fight over representation

The Census is (and arguably always has been) a battleground in the fight over political power and the disenfranchisement of African Americans stemming from slavery.

As the nonpartisan watchdog group Common Cause described in a historical analysis of undercounting people of color, the Census began with an inherently flawed compromise in which slaves were counted in southern states as three-fifths of a person to the benefit of taxation and congressional representation, but they did not have the right to vote. The compromise inflated political representation for white southerners.

In the early 20th Century, urban migration, demographic shifts and an influx of immigrants fueled xenophobic reactions in corridors of power. U.S. Rep. Edward Little (Kansas) clamored, “It is not best for America that her councils be dominated by semicivilized foreign colonies in Boston, New York and Chicago.”

In the century since, systemic undercounting of people considered non-white has continued, undermining fair political representation. As recent as the 2010 Census, 2.1% of Black Americans and 1.5% of Hispanics were not counted in the Census, meaning 1.5 million people of color were missed, according to the bureau’s own estimates. Similar rates of undercounting took place in 2000.

The effect of undercounting people of color is compounded by the periodic overcounting of white people—including by an estimated 0.8% in 2010—due to various factors such as double-counting second homes.

According to analysis by the Funders Census Initiative, such undercounting “compounds the problem of inequality in the census, because wealthier, predominantly White communities receive more than their fair share of influence and resources, while poorer, non-White areas receive less than they should.”

The attempted addition of a citizenship question in the 2020 Census was viewed by critics of the Trump administration as an extension of this push to preserve political power—another attempt to indirectly undercount communities of color and immigrant populations for partisan gain.

“By asking for this information,” Bouie wrote of the citizenship question for The New York Times’ 1619 Project, “the administration would suppress the number of immigrant respondents, worsening their representation in the House and the Electoral College, reweighting power to the white, rural areas that back the president and the Republican Party.” (A Supreme Court ruling this past summer will prevent such a question from being included in the 2020 Census.)

There are numerous barriers to getting responses from and counting every person, such as language or literacy challenges, changing residences frequently or having irregular housing, fear or distrust due to immigration status, or even safety concerns—perceived or real—that Census enumerators may experience while canvassing.

Inherent biases have historically come into play as well. Prior to the 1960 Census, people did not choose their own race; rather, Census enumerators accounted for race and ethnicity “by observation.” And after 1960, if self-identified answers were not completed in the questionnaire forms, enumerators “filled in the blanks by observation.”

How prisoner populations are treated by the Census also exacerbate gaps in representation. “Every district sends people to prison, but not every district has a prison,” said Colorado State Rep. Kerry Tipper (D-Jefferson County) in an interview with the Colorado Independent. “When you have folks that are being counted in the area they’re being incarcerated in, how is it fair to bloat numbers for purposes of redistricting, when these people can’t vote?”

A complete count in Colorado

As part of the urgent push to ensure a fair and complete count, Colorado and other states and communities are conducting a variety of outreach, education and engagement efforts, with a particular focus on hard-to-reach and historically underserved populations.

“Our push is that it’s important, easy and safe,” said Natriece Bryant of the Colorado Department of Local Affairs, at the Denver City Council committee presentation in July, “so people understand why we’re doing this.”

“Our job is more challenging this time around because of all the efforts at the federal level to try and deal with this Census differently than has been done, by trying to politicize it,” said Denver City Councilwoman Deborah Ortega in an interview. “It’s not coincidental that the scheduled [Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, or ICE] raids and the citizenship question are on the table concurrently. We want to stay focused on educating our community about why [the Census] is important, and that their personal information will be constitutionally protected.”

What’s at stake in the 2020 Census is approximately $13 billion in federal funding, according to the Colorado Department of Local Affairs. Colorado’s current state budget is about $30 billion, about one-third of which is from federal funding. That includes funding for schools through Title 1, senior services through Medicare, health care services through Medicaid, veterans’ programs, community colleges, tuition assistance, roads and transportation, public libraries, women and children’s services, food assistance through SNAP, health centers, community centers and more.

According to a study from George Washington University’s Institute of Public Policy, just a 1% undercount in Colorado equates to a loss of $63 million in federal funding, based on 2010 Census data.

“We want to make sure we’re not short-changing our community by not getting that full count,” said Ortega.

It’s not just adults, either, as children are among the populations that historically have been undercounted. “That’s a particular problem in Colorado, because we missed 18,000 children in 2010,” said Rodriguez. “That’s a lot of kids who, for the first 10 years or whatever point we missed them, their communities aren’t getting the support or representation to really contribute to the quality of their lives.”

“As we achieve a complete count, it means that Colorado will receive the resources that are due to our communities,” Ortega said. “It’s why our rural areas are equally important to urban areas to getting a full count.”

The Census is not just about funding public investments. Because of recent population growth, Colorado is one of just seven states expected to gain an additional congressional seat and electoral vote following the 2020 Census.

“The more accurate the count, the more likely it is we will have appropriate-sized districts,” said Rodriguez.

Ortega said she believes that “part of the push of the 45th Administration to get the citizenship question added has been about trying to control and manipulate the outcome of the 2020 election, around the redistricting with congressional districts, legislative districts, local and school board, and in our case RTD district boundaries.”

All of this is why Colorado is prioritizing a complete count. There is a state Complete Count Campaign engaging a variety of community partners. And in an unusual show of the importance of what’s at stake, the Colorado legislature approved $6 million in state funding to help reach hard-to-count populations.

Success in part hinges on a large and diverse coalition of local governments, municipalities, public agencies, nonprofit organizations and community groups—many of which hold the role of “trusted community messengers,” as the Census Bureau calls them—to make sure people know the importance of participating in and completing the Census, as well as to alleviate fears and concerns that people may have about their privacy and safety.

“With communities of color [and immigrant communities], there is a huge distrust in government,” Bryant said, “so we talk to them about why the Census is so important.”

“We’re meeting them where they are,” Griego reinforced, in mentioning neighborhood associations, restaurants, promotoras, community groups and other outreach partners.

An analysis by the Colorado Fiscal Institute (a Colorado Trust grantee) estimates there are 1.5 million hard-to-count people in Colorado. They include people of color, people living in rural areas, people who earn lower incomes, and people who speak or understand limited amounts of English.

“If we don’t have a real picture of what all of our neighborhoods look like… of what our local communities look like, that disempowers you to make decisions,” said Griego.

Undercounting certain people and populations over decades and decades didn’t happen by accident. Reversing it won’t happen by accident, either, and that’s the whole point of the complete-count movement.

“It’s a way of blending of the political with the practical,” said Rodriguez. “We need to know how many people are in our communities.”

“We all drive on our roads. Our kids and grandkids and neighbors kids all benefit from our school districts,” said Ortega. “I’m excited about us being able to show efforts made in achieving that complete count, and that will translate into all the positive things that will come back to our communities.”

Scott Downes

Writer & Communications Consultant
Denver, Colo.

See all stories by this author

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