The high-stakes legal clash over whether the 2020 census should include a citizenship question is consuming public attention, but the real fate of the census may be sealed by a lesser-noticed battle playing out on the ground.
That’s where an unprecedented coalition of national, local, and community groups is mobilizing to ensure that the decennial census counts all U.S. residents, citizens or not. Spearheaded by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the effort has drawn together more than 150 partners, from national civil rights groups to librarians, faith leaders, and health-care workers. Major philanthropic donors, including the Ford, Kellogg, and Open Society Foundations, have kicked in more than $50 million.
“This effort in 2020 is unprecedented in the scope and the number of groups looking to reach communities across the country,” says Beth Lynk, director of the Census Counts campaign led by the Leadership Conference Education Fund. National partners include the Asian Americans Advancing Justice, the National Urban League, and the NALEO Educational Fund.
Civil rights groups have also helped lead the lawsuits challenging the Trump administration’s plan to ask about citizenship status on the census, including the Department of Commerce v. New York case recently decided by the Supreme Court. Having been rebuffed by the court, President Donald Trump has characteristically sown confusion and discord by sending mixed signals, attempting to shuffle his legal team, preparing to issue an executive order, and tangling with Congress over subpoenas and funding.
But whatever the outcome of the ongoing legal battle—and lawyers argue that things don’t look good for the administration—the damage to the 2020 census has arguably already been done. Even before Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross announced plans to ask about citizenship on the census—ostensibly to help the administration enforce the Voting Rights Act, but really to politically advantage the GOP—the census was in trouble.
Funding and staffing shortfalls, plus the Census Bureau’s plan to move much of the census online for the first time in 2020, prompted the Government Accountability Office to classify it as a “high risk” program. More than a year ago, the Leadership Conference began marshaling partners to respond to these and other threats to an accurate count, including plummeting public trust in government, privacy fears, and this administration’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies.
Ross’s citizenship question push has made a bad situation worse, threatening to drastically drive down responses from noncitizens and their relations. By one estimate, asking about citizenship could lead to an undercount in the nine million range. Hundreds of billions in federal funds, which are doled out for everything from emergency services to schools based on population counts, are on the line. Big undercounts could also skew congressional apportionment and district lines in favor of the GOP, which explains why Trump and other Republicans are so eager to forge ahead.
Trump’s bombastic tweets and warnings on the census—that the Supreme Court “got it wrong,” that he will pursue executive action to get his way—may not get him far in court. But they serve to keep the issue in the news, and further foment confusion and alarm in communities that were already at risk of being disproportionately undercounted.
The Census Counts coalition and its partners have responded with toolkits and educational materials that train community groups and local leaders answer questions about and help U.S. residents fill out census forms. That includes helping people understand why it’s important to fill out questionnaires, and that money for schools and health care may be on the line.
Because of the census’s new online format, there’s a push to give respondents access to computers in libraries or local schools. Organizers are also working to counter widespread fears among U.S. residents that their answers will be used against them. Federal laws protect the confidentiality of census responses—and civil rights advocates say they are watching closely to ensure that this administration follows those rules.
The campaign for an accurate count has several prongs. Asian Americans Advancing Justice launched a “Count Us In 2020” drive that has fact sheets and talking points in 15 Asian languages. The NALEO Educational Fund has produced resources for state and local community leaders in English and Spanish. The Partnership for America’s Children has launched a “Count All Kids” campaign that includes a toolkit for how community leaders can help ensure young kids are not overlooked.
So far, the courts have imposed a crucial check on Trump’s ill-advised insistence on a citizenship question. The legal battle over the census has exposed some of the worst abuses of this administration, which has ignored expert opinion, deceived the public, undermined the rule of law, and flouted its constitutional mandate to accurately count the U.S. population every ten years. But the accuracy of the count will ultimately rest with individual U.S. residents, and with the grassroots organizers struggling to convince them to fill out their census questionnaires.