Unfortunately, in 2020, a century and a half later, the current president is regressing toward that more dishonorable history. His recent executive action to exclude undocumented people from the census holds terrible echoes of erasure and exclusion. The memo is clearly a repeat of his previous efforts to stoke fear of immigrants, refugees and communities of color and to distort the true picture of America. Along with this fear tactic, the Trump administration is stealthily trying to end the 2020 Census early, without accurately counting Black, Latino or Native American communities, whose response rates currently trail the national average. Asian and Pacific Islander communities are also at risk of being undercounted. Worse, the Trump administration wants to use the coronavirus pandemic as an excuse to use a flawed statistical tool that will cement the erasure of these populations.
The consequences of that erasure will be dire. Every 10 years, the census count is used to allocate federal funds and to reallocate political power through reapportionment and redistricting. At stake is the annual distribution of $1.5 trillion for everything from schools to health care to the roads and bridges we drive on.
Undercounted communities will get less than their real need. This will be particularly felt in communities of color which have been disproportionately ravaged by covid-19. Make no mistake, the ramifications will be felt nationwide as it would guarantee a crippled systematic response that would underfund schools, hospitals and disaster recovery for years. If the administration’s ploy works, and the undocumented as well as their mixed-documentation status families are silent, this would drain billions annually from states such as California, Texas, Florida and Georgia, just to name a few.
But there’s more. The 2020 Census will also guide the distribution of political power. With an inaccurate count, under Trump’s scheme, congressional districts, apportioned by Congress every 10 years, will become whiter and more Republican, despite population trends that run the exact opposite direction. The electoral college will be further weighted against the will of the people. District maps from the state house to the school board will be inaccurate, silencing entire communities from being seen and heard.
In 2019, the Supreme Court permitted partisan gerrymandering, but it preserved the standard that outlaws districts that intentionally harm the ability of people of color to actively participate in electing their representatives. But if the census ends early, without effectively counting hard-to-reach populations, Census Bureau statisticians will use a method called “imputation” to basically guess who’s missing. While imputation has been used in past censuses in a very limited fashion, a premature cutoff to the counting would force the Census Bureau to greatly expand it. This guessing game could devastate communities of color — and Trump knows it. He is challenging the very ideals of democracy in an effort to guarantee artificially inflated power for his party for generations to come. The president has already signaled his goal of a skewed notion of America, and that’s why he is trying to beat the clock in order to rig the future.
The census has never been perfect; but decade after decade, we have strived to meet our Constitution’s charge. The nonpartisan Census Bureau has dutifully logged this population count as accurately as possible, while protecting the process from political interference so that the distribution of resources and political power reflects the reality of our time.
Sadly, as has so much in the age of Trump, its stewardship is changing. So it falls to the rest of us to protect the ideals of democracy and to rebuke the president’s politics of greed and fear. First, visit My2020Census.gov to be counted today. More broadly, at this demographic and ideological inflection point, we must commit to the virtue of seeing our people as they are, who they are and where they live, so that we can continue to grapple with the policy implications with purpose, fairness and facts. To do anything less would be committing malfeasance against democracy itself.