Census Update

Elections and the 2020 Census – A Connection Worth Considering

By Terri Ann Lowenthal, Consultant, Funders Census Initiative 2020

I live in Connecticut, within the New York City metro area. That means I lived the past few weeks under bombardment from presidential primary ads‎ (which, thankfully, have ended as suddenly as they began).

The upcoming elections are critical, of course (if not exhausting and maddening, at times). Civic engagement funders are rightly focused on a range of issues the 2016 elections have brought to the forefront: voter registration, turnout, and suppression; reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act, post-Shelby; the effects of gerrymandering on control of Congress and state legislatures; multi-lingual access to the voting process; and electoral system reforms generally.

What you might not have considered are the important implications of this election both for the 2020 Census (and, by extension, the ongoing American Community Survey, or ACS — the modern version of the census long form) and the post-2020 electoral map that will carry us through another decade. 2020 might still seem like a long way off, but the outcome of the presidential and congressional elections in 2016 could shape efforts to promote full access to governing institutions and meaningful opportunities to participate in all aspects of our democracy for years to come.

Let’s start with the most obvious, if overlooked, result of the top-of-the-ticket race: the next president will be at the helm when the 2020 Census takes place. Yes, the U.S. Constitution vests responsibility for taking a census in Congress, which we will get to in a moment. But lawmakers delegated authority for conducting the census to the Executive Branch in the Census Act of 1902, giving the next Administration a not-inconsequential role in various decisions that will affect final census planning, preparations, and implementation.

A second, and more immediate, consequence of the fall election is an example of that role: the next president will choose — with the U.S. Senate’s consent — a Secretary of Commerce and Census Director who (barring unforeseen circumstances) will preside over the 2020 count. (The Census Bureau is part of the Commerce Department.) The secretary will be cheerleader-in-chief, of sorts, for the census, in front of Congress and in the public arena, but he or she also must prioritize resources across a dizzying patchwork of incongruous department missions — from weather forecasting, coastal preservation, and trade policies, to business and manufacturing initiatives, economic development programs, and cyber-security protocols. Some secretaries have embraced the goal of a fair and accurate census with gusto, while others have approached the decennial mobilization with a respectful yawn, and a few have found themselves embroiled in bitter political controversies surrounding a nonpartisan national activity with unavoidable political implications.

The timing for appointment of a new Census Director is especially problematic this time around. Congress enacted the Presidential Appointments Efficiency and Streamlining Act of 2011, which (in relevant part) gave the Census Director a 5-year, renewable term of office, in an effort to promote stability through the 10-year decennial census lifecycle. The legislation also emphasized the importance of high-level management and scientific skills for director candidates. The term of the first director confirmed under the new law, John Thompson, ends on December 31, 2016 — in the middle of the transition void between Administrations and Congresses. If history is any guide, the Census Bureau could be without a permanent director for much of 2017, during which time the agency must finalize the 2020 Census design, open and staff regional census centers, begin working with states and localities to improve the address list, and prepare for the critical dress rehearsal in 2018. A president and Senate that prioritize a successful census could fill that leadership vacuum more quickly.

The outcome of the 2016 congressional elections also will bear substantially on the Census Bureau’s ability to commit adequate resources to activities that promote a fair and accurate census in historically undercounted communities. Those activities include a targeted, flexible communications campaign that reaches diverse communities across multiple media platforms, as well as on-the-ground through “trusted voices”; a robust language assistance program; and enough boots-on-the-ground to follow-up with households that don’t self-respond. If Congress doesn’t allocate enough money, the Census Bureau will have fewer resources to reach hard-to-count population groups, making it more difficult to eliminate the stubborn, differential undercount of people of color, low income and rural households, and young children (especially Black and Latino).

Furthermore, the composition and control of the House and Senate could determine the fate of the ACS over the long term. Some lawmakers (associated primarily with the Tea Party and House Freedom Caucus) have led efforts to make ACS response voluntary, which would undermine data reliability and availability, or eliminate the survey altogether. Their influence in the 115thand future Congresses will shape congressional action on this issue going forward.

Finally, and more broadly, the post-2016 election social environment and political discourse on immigration issues could adversely affect the Census Bureau’s ability to reach immigrants, especially those who are undocumented, live in mixed-status households, or are targets of anti-immigrant rhetoric, such as Muslim Americans and Mexican Americans. Many foreign-born residents are wary of government authorities, and convincing people who live in the shadows or in fear to participate in the national count is never easy, even in the best of circumstances.

And what about the other side of the bridge, when the 2020 Census is in the history (or statistical!) books? The census is the basis for apportionment and redistricting at the federal and state levels, as well as for many local governing bodies (county councils, school boards, etc.). The accuracy of the 2020 Census — in terms of both the raw count and the precision of data on race and ethnicity — will determine the make-up of the Electoral College, and fairness of representation and opportunity to participate equitably in civic institutions, at all levels of government for the next decade. Effective implementation of the Voting Rights Act and a myriad of other civil rights laws also depend on an accurate census.

The connection is deep and circular: the outcome of this year’s presidential and congressional elections is important for the 2020 Census, and the outcome of the 2020 Census most certainly matters for the presidential, congressional, and state elections that follow. Funders who make census issues a consistent part of their civic engagement portfolios will be spending their resources and time wisely.