Advocates Fight Against Undercounting in Upcoming Census

July 5, 2019 Update: On July 27, the Supreme Court ruled that the Trump Administration did not give an adequate reason for adding a citizenship question to the 2020 Census, halting the question for the time being. In the meantime, the US Census Bureau announced that they are printing the 2020 Census form without the question included.

This month marks the 100th anniversary of Senate passage of the constitutional amendment that granted  some women the right to vote. The U.S. Senate had rejected the amendment twice before the historic third vote that shifted our nation’s electoral politics.

Why did some Senators change their vote in such a short timeframe? Because their states were ahead of the federal government and had already granted some women the right to vote. “[Fifty-six] of the congressmen who changed their vote from no to yes represented states that had enfranchised women in 1917. Their seats — and their political futures — were now determined by a transformed electorate.” The elected officials’ quick change of heart is a century-old lesson that is playing out in a highly anticipated Supreme Court decision this month on the 2020 Census.

Today, Nonprofit VOTE asserts, “elected officials and policymakers are more likely to pay attention to communities that vote” – the same as 100 years ago. However, nonprofits are concerned that, just like in 1919, a federal law may prevent policymakers from paying attention to the needs of everyone in their community.

This week, the Supreme Court is expected to decide whether the 2020 Census will include a question that asks, “Is this person a citizen of the United States?” The Trump Administration claims that the inclusion of the question on the Census would help enforce the Voting Rights Act, but advocates warn that the question may disenfranchise voters of color and allow policymakers to ignore the needs of key constituents.

Research indicates that the inclusion of this question could lead to a dramatic undercount of people of color in the Census, particularly people from Latinx and immigrant communities. Because the Census serves as the basis for drawing voting districts, determining Congressional representation, and distributing federal resources, the impact of this undercount could severely disenfranchise and damage some communities.

For this reason, may nonprofits have advocated for excluding this question in the Census, including filing lawsuits to prohibit adding the question. The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in April on whether the question should be included in the 2020 Census. At the time, Justice Sotomayor said, “There’s no doubt people will respond less.” The Court is expected to deliver an official ruling this week, ahead of the U.S. Census Bureau’s July 1st deadline to finalize the census form for next year.

However, a recent twist in the case could delay the decision. A recent court filing by advocates challenging the citizenship question includes new documents that they say indicate the real reason for adding the citizenship question is to bias elections. They cite documents from a Republican redistricting expert that said the question could “be advantageous to Republicans and non-Hispanic Whites.” In other words, opponents of the question believe that the true reason for adding the question centers around manipulating political power, rather than collecting accurate data about people living in the U.S. Therefore, some of those opponents are asking the Supreme Court to take time to consider this new evidence, which could delay the final ruling.

In the meantime, Justice Ginsberg encourages us not to forget that Census measurement and Congressional representation is not just about people who vote. She said, “As the framers of the Constitution and the Fourteenth Amendment comprehend, representatives serve all residents, not just those eligible or registered to vote.” Her point is well-taken. A Census undercount not only impacts voting districts or federal funding, it skews data used to determine whether there are enough local infrastructure and resources to serve all citizens, including children, people that have a developmental disability, or ex-offenders.

It is ironic that the very month we celebrate the 100-year anniversary of a law that forced elected officials to finally take notice of some of their long-ignored constituents, we’re also awaiting the future of a new policy that could enable lawmakers to disregard many of our neighbors. Whether it is giving, voting, or other forms of civic participation, we must build mechanisms to ensure everyone counts and community decision-makers (including nonprofits and elected officials) pay attention to all needs.

To learn more about the importance of the census, visit the United Philanthropy Forum’s page on why the census matters to philanthropy.

Types: Blog, Policy Update
Global Topics: Administration, Civil Society, Congress, Data, Public Policy, Voices for Good
Policy Issues: Nonprofit Operations