2020 census

It Sure Looks Like Republicans Don’t Want an Accurate Census Count

President Donald Trump (left) with Texas Governor Greg Abbott.
President Donald Trump, left, with Texas governor Greg Abbott. Photo: Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

The reasons why a state government would want an accurate Census count are self-evident. The Census Bureau’s explainer covers many of them. “When you respond to the census, you help your community gets [sic] its fair share of the more than $675 billion per year in federal funds spent on schools, hospitals, roads, public works and other vital programs,” it reads. Then there’s apportionment: “[The 2020 census] results will determine the number of seats each state will have in the U.S. House of Representatives for the next 10 years.” More money and more say in how the federal government functions should help legislators more effectively advocate on behalf of their constituents, in theory.

But in 2020, both have become secondary to partisan considerations: Where Democrat-led states like California are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on campaigns encouraging their residents to participate in the census, Republican-governed counterparts like Florida, Ohio, and Texas are declining to spend any. From a Monday New York Times report on the subject:

Next year’s census is part head count and part power struggle, the most politicized population tally in a century, in which a state’s desire for an accurate count could depend on which party is in charge there …

[The census] already faces daunting challenges. A wave of immigration not seen since the early 1900s has brought into the country people who are either unaware of the importance of the American census or are suspicious of those that were conducted in their native countries. The 2020 count already has been tarred by a ferocious battle over Republican efforts to enumerate noncitizens nationwide, a fight that is likely to depress census response next year among minorities who are mistrustful of the government.

In the event of an undercount, the populations most likely to lose out on representation and resources are “hard to count” groups like black people, Latinos, Asians, and poor people, all of whom tend to vote Democratic. This is almost certainly a point of consideration for some of the 24 states — 17 of them with Republican governors — whose governments aren’t contributing any resources to the Census Bureau’s uniquely fraught 2020 effort.

While limited budgets and resistance to such a massive new undertaking no doubt play a role — states spending millions on Census turnout is uncommon, according to the Times — the partisan divide in these approaches is impossible to dismiss, as is the cost-benefit analysis for Republicans taking it under consideration. Whatever their ultimate rationale, declining to spend any money or manpower on turnout is an omission tantamount to ensuring an overcount of white people and, by extension, GOP-friendly constituencies, while doing nothing to disabuse poor and immigrant communities of the notion that giving their information to Trump is a perilous gamble.

Such trepidation is understandable. Even aside from the president’s crackdowns on immigrants, there’s little ambiguity as to why he wanted to add the citizenship question in the first place. A 2015 study conducted by the late Republican strategist Thomas B. Hofeller found that tallying noncitizens — and then omitting them while drawing congressional districts —  “would be advantageous to Republicans and non-Hispanic whites,” giving them free reign to determine the partisan makeup of the federal government and direct its priorities.

Hofeller urged Trump’s transition team to add the question and wrote a crucial portion of the Justice Department’s argument for trying to do so, which became central to its unsuccessful defense before the Supreme Court. Whenever pressed, the administration has denied the role of Hofeller’s study in its effort. But Trump’s former adviser on Census issues, Mark Neuman, begged to differ, providing the House Oversight Committee with emails showing that he ran drafts of the defense by Hofeller for approval on several occasions.

Now that the citizenship question is off the table, Republicans seem to be settling for the next best thing: Sitting back and doing nothing while fear of what the administration might do with Census information grips vulnerable communities and, more likely than not, dissuades them from participating. It’s far from the worst consolation prize. When the goal is to tally noncitizens so that the federal government can omit them during apportionment anyway, the GOP could do worse than tacitly encouraging them to opt out so that they don’t get counted.

The outlook for 2020 is already stark. California’s government is spending $187 million to reach populations that are traditionally undercounted, including by giving money to community groups that already have inroads to spread the word and spending on ad campaigns to raise awareness and assuage fears:

[In] rural California, internet service is spotty. So the census message will be delivered according to its audience: at community events popular with farm laborers; on billboards in internet-scarce areas; via Facebook or text messages, whichever micro-targeted recipients use most …

To reach the four in 10 Californians who are Hispanic, [the state] gave $400,000 to the NALEO Education Fund, which hired five regional managers to train canvassers and show social-service workers how to spread the census message among their clients.

Meanwhile, similar work in Texas — a state with a similar demographic profile but less political will for such an undertaking — is being shouldered by overburdened community groups with zero help from the state:

The center and the Communities Foundation of Texas, a Dallas philanthropy, lead the effort to drum up responses. The foundation has raised $1.5 million for work in hard-to-count areas. The Hogg Foundation, another philanthropy, has contributed $2 million; the United Way, $1.5 million. Houston, Dallas and other big cities are mounting campaigns.

But outside the major metros, money and personnel are scarce.

“It’s not that philanthropies aren’t doing enough,” said Lila Valencia, the senior demographer at the Texas Demographic Center. “It’s just that it’s going to take so much more than we have.”

The daunting nature of this task is likely the point. Efforts to narrow access to the franchise to preserve Republican rule abound across the South and Midwest, leaving shards of voting rights in their wake. The waxing unpopularity of the party’s platform is making the popular vote increasingly out of reach for its presidential candidates. Its path to power must regularly circumnavigate the tried-and-true method of convincing a majority of voters that your ideas are the best.

Showing little interest in an accurate Census count on the state level is a logical next step. Whether deliberately undermining the Census is Texas’s mission or not, it doesn’t discount the fact that it’s a convenient side effect. That many everyday residents will suffer due to the resultant lack of resources is of secondary concern. As long as Republicans stay in power, it’s hard to imagine them deeming that outcome unacceptable.

A 2020 Census Undercount Helps Republicans and They Know It