As soon as the midterms passed, many California Democrats turned their attention to November of 2020. But the party ought not to forget about April — the month when the 2020 census will take place. Uncertainty, distrust and unpreparedness all threaten the accuracy and completeness of the upcoming census. The party, as a convener of diverse community groups and trusted messengers, has the potential to immensely assist Get Out the Count, or GOTC, efforts. Even in Berkeley, we must play a major role in helping hard-to-count, or HTC, communities participate in the decennial enumeration. As a result, they’ll improve their partisan aims as well as their communities’ ability to earn federal funds, attract businesses and allocate resources. There’s a lot at stake beyond party politics. The census undercounted 400 Berkeley residents in 2010, which may have cost the city thousands of dollars given per capita federal funding. Berkeley residents, though, would be wrong to think that the federal government is keen to correct its previous failures.
The 2020 census is on shaky ground because of the Trump administration’s overt attempts to mitigate a successful count. In the most literal way possible, form follows function when it comes to the administration’s decision to include a citizenship question on the survey. In the first of several trials on whether the question can be included, a statistical expert from Duke University made clear that the question would reduce noncitizen participation. Notably, the Kaiser Family Foundation estimates that California has the largest percentage of noncitizen residents. Jointly, this suggests that California has a lot riding on preparing for the worst-case scenario: the Supreme Court, the likely destination of the litigation, approving the citizenship question and the census failing to convey that collected information cannot be shared with any other agency, including ICE.
Even if the Supreme Court bans the question, the Census Bureau’s lack of funding, staff and testing all suggest that a complete count will require robust support from community organizations, many of which Democrats may have ties to or membership in. A 2016 census test in Los Angeles County recorded just a 53.4 percent self-response rate; the internet response rate was a meager 31.4 percent. Census Bureau officials are banking on a much higher internet self-response rate given that the agency has reduced its total number of regional field offices and enumerators. Yet, rather than continue to test ways to boost internet response rates, the bureau has actually canceled some scheduled tests. Community organizations will have to fill the void left by the lack of federal investment.
The administration’s deprioritization of the census will make it even more difficult to foster participation among HTC communities, which tend to be younger, more ethnically diverse and have a higher share of low-income residents — attributes that also disproportionately describe Democrats. In 1990, an undercount of similar populations resulted in California losing a congressional seat. Repeating such an error would severely damage the party’s national standing given anticipated changes in the apportionment of House seats. Forecasts currently estimate the following states will gain seats: Texas (3 seats), Florida (2), North Carolina (1), Colorado (1), Arizona (1) and Oregon (1). The same estimates suggest that Alabama, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and West Virginia will each lose one seat. The Party cannot allow California to join the ranks of relatively blue states losing representation.
An undercount would also undermine redistricting within California. Since 2010, in many cases congressional districts represented by Democrats have swelled in population in comparison to their neighboring, Republican-represented districts. Consider the configuration of central California districts as an example of how a complete count could reshape the California map in favor of Democrats. District 21 (represented by Republican David Valadao) had just 723,000 residents in 2017. Comparatively, District 20 (Democrat Jimmy Panetta), to the west of the 21st, boasted 744,000 residents. Districts redrawn around these numbers could lead to big political shifts.
A complete count would also alter districts closer to home. Just to look northwest to Yuba City — District 3 (Democrat John Garamendi), which Republicans held as recently as 2012, claims 750,271 residents. In contrast, District 13 (Democrat Barbara Lee), centered in Berkeley, is home to 766,731 Californians. To maximize the likelihood of districts being drawn in a manner that encapsulates growth in Democratic areas, party members must engage in the census preparation process.
Democrats should quickly reach out to their city and county officials to learn what they can do to assist with GOTC efforts. Tech-savvy Democrats should consider joining their jurisdictions’ Complete Count Committees to provide expertise on what sort of digital infrastructure will increase participation. Multilingual party members should become enumerators. A change to enumerator eligibility requirements means only citizens can apply; accordingly, it’s likely that the census will have a dearth of enumerators that literally speak the language of some HTC communities. Finally, Democrats should make sure that any discussion of whether to back Steyer, Harris or Swalwell is paired with a conversation about the benefits of a complete and accurate census to heighten awareness of the upcoming enumeration.
Politically, a complete count can make the electoral map more favorable to the party’s state and national interests. Locally, an accurate census will guarantee that cities receive their fair share of resources and the information required to plan for the future. Within a big year, November and April will be the biggest months for Democrats in 2020.
Kevin Frazier is a masters student at Harvard Kennedy School and a student at the UC Berkeley School of Law.