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The census: ‘Don’t let anyone count you out’

The 2020 census form, international edition. (Photo: Tada Images, via Shutterstock)

Amid the piles of bills and other notices in the mail, a special invitation to complete the national census is coming to Californians beginning this week.

The census, which happens once every 10 years, is a mammoth effort to get a snapshot of who is living here as of April 1. The results will be used to determine everything from Congressional representation to federal funding for health, education, child care and transportation. Preliminary estimates by the state Department of Finance that were released in December put California’s population at 39.96 million.

Some wonder whether fears about COVID-19, the coronavirus, will deter people from filling out the census.

California is spending $187.2 million in a statewide outreach and communications campaign to encourage residents to participate. “Don’t let anyone count you out,” said first partner Jennifer Siebel Newsom in a video posted on the official state site californiacensus.org. “This is your state and your country and you deserve to be counted.”

Though federal law requires all residents to fill out a census form, getting full compliance likely won’t be easy.

“Every 10 years, our public becomes a little more distrusting of government and a little more wanting to be private,” said Paul Mitchell, vice president of Political Data, Inc. “They may put up their vacation photos on Instagram, but they don’t want the government to know where they live.”

On top of that, some wonder whether fears about COVID-19, the coronavirus, will deter people from filling out the census. Garry South, a Democratic strategist said anything that disrupts life – from hurricanes to earthquakes to a public health crisis, does potentially have an effect on the count.

One thing that should alleviate concerns, however, is that this year, for the first time, most people can fill the census form out online, without interacting with any strangers. Invitations in the mail will explain how to do it.  There will also be options to answer census questions by mail or by phone.  The government will only send out census workers to knock on doors of people who do respond.

“I think there is going to be a very significant undercount, which is the objective of the Trump administration.” — Mike Madrid

The list of questions that will be asked in the census includes how many people, including children, live in the home or apartment, their names, ages and sexes and how they are related. The census will not ask for Social security numbers, financial account information or citizenship status. President Trump had pushed for inclusion of a citizenship question last year but was blocked by the Supreme Court.

Still, the news coverage of that will likely make it harder to count undocumented immigrants, said Mike Madrid, a veteran Republican strategist. “There is a palpable fear in Latino communities about interacting with the census,” he said. “The Trump administration has been successful to this point in engendering that fear.”

Undocumented residents worry that if they complete the census form, they will be deported. “I think there is going to be a very significant undercount, which is the objective of the Trump administration,” Madrid said.

The undercount is serious because it means policymakers won’t get the data they need to make decisions, he added. “The accuracy of data is everything,” he said. “Without that accuracy, you’re not getting an accurate reflection of what’s happening in America. The weaker the data, the weaker the decision.”

Garry South said it shouldn’t detract from California’s clout on the national stage if it loses one seat since it already has so many.

According to an analysis from the Brookings Institution, California is projected to lose a Congressional seat for the first time in its history after census results come out, decreasing its number from 53 seats to 52. There are a maximum of 435 congressional seats to allocate to all the states. Though California may not lose residents, it’s not growing as fast as other states and therefore will likely lose one seat.

South said it shouldn’t detract from California’s clout on the national stage if it loses one seat since it already has so many. However, he said it will be interesting to see how the remaining 52 seats will be configured. Redrawing the district maps may change the ethnic makeup of some districts – for instance, some districts that have been African-American may be reconfigured to have a majority Latino population, South said.

Mitchell believes the consequences of losing a congressional seat is secondary to losing federal dollars for state programs. Mitchell says he well understands why California is investing $187.2 million to get a complete count.

“It seems like a lot but it’s pennies compared to the billions the state could lose from a severe undercount,” he said.


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