The next decennial U.S. census is more than two years away. But decisions made in coming weeks will affect its fairness and accuracy — and Minnesotans have more reason than residents of most states to want the next census done right. Minnesota is on the verge of losing one of its eight seats in the U.S. House and one of its Electoral College votes. Even a small undercount could diminish Minnesota’s voice in Washington.
That’s why last month’s move by the Justice Department to add a question about citizenship to the 2020 census deserves to get a rise out of Minnesotans. It already has among independent census watchdogs. They fear that adding such a question will discourage participation in the census by noncitizens who are unwilling to disclose their status to the government. “It really does worry me that this question will have a bad impact on the accuracy and completeness of the census,” Minnesota state demographer Susan Brower told an editorial writer last week.
The Trump Justice Department argues that a census question on citizenship status is needed for enforcement of the 1965 Voting Rights Act — something no previous administration has claimed during that law’s 53 years on the books. The American Community Survey samples about 10 percent of the population each year and includes a citizenship question, one that voting rights advocates say produces data sufficient for election law enforcement.
Federal law includes a confidentiality guarantee for census participants. But trust in the Trump administration’s adherence to that law is low, said Marcia Avner, a Minnesota consultant who co-chairs the census initiative of the Funders Committee on Civic Participation, a nonpartisan project of more than 90 national foundations and institutions. “There hasn’t been a perceived threat in quite the way we are seeing it now,” Avner said. “People are frightened to have any contact with the government.” Advocacy groups that typically work in concert with the census are nervous about putting people in harm’s way, she said.
As instituted by the U.S. Constitution, the census aims to count all residents, not just those eligible to vote. Congressional apportionment is based on total population, not numbers of citizens. But the value of a census goes well beyond fair political representation. Many federal funding programs distribute dollars to the states on the basis of census results. A George Washington University estimate puts Minnesota’s share of census-driven federal funding at $8.4 billion in fiscal 2015, or $1,532 per Minnesotan. Census data are also used heavily by both the public and private sectors as myriad decisions are made about where to build, invest, and market goods and services.
Political partisans should be disabused of the notion that a population undercount works to the advantage of one party. No American benefits from a botched census.
Among census experts, concern about the 2020 census was already running high before the citizenship question became an issue. Census Bureau funding requests have been shortchanged by Congress repeatedly since 2012, said Terri Ann Lowenthal, an independent consultant and former staff director of census oversight committees in Congress. Through 2017, census funding was running about 10 percent short of requests. That has already led to the cancellation of tests of new IT systems — a risky shortcut — and the delay of some outreach activities.
But the most crucial funding decisions lie just ahead, for this fiscal year and the next two. Three dress-rehearsal tests were planned for 2018. Already, that number has been cut to just one, in Providence, R.I. A test there likely will have limited application to, say, an Indian reservation in northern Minnesota. One of the canceled tests was to take place on an Indian reservation.
To his credit, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross last fall added $187 million to the Trump administration’s original, exceedingly skimpy 2018 funding proposal. Congress has yet to act on that budget. Meanwhile, the move to add a citizenship question has landed on Ross’ desk; if he approves it, it goes next to Congress for action this spring.
With this state’s congressional apportionment on the line, Minnesota’s members of Congress have self-interested reason to take the lead in assuring sufficient census funding and avoiding any deterrent to participation. Minnesotans should let their representatives know that they want the census to be a priority, and that they want it done right.