Will Democrats Come to Their Census?

Why boosting participation in the 2020 survey should be one of their biggest priorities.

Removing Donald Trump from the White House should be mission number one for Democrats—and the nation—in 2020. Come January 20, 2021, there will be no greater relief for the majority of Americans than to watch someone else sworn in as president, and for our long national nightmare to finally be over.

But if Democrats focus solely on voting Trump and other Republicans out of office, they risk missing a unique opportunity to campaign for an issue central to their values and their future. Beginning in early 2020, the American public will have a chance to make a serious difference outside the ballot box and inside the comfort of their own homes. After a 10-year hiatus, we can complete the U.S. Census.

Stay with me now. Most Americans realize that the census is a tool by which the federal government counts individuals living in the United States, regardless of immigration status. But what makes the census so singularly impactful, is that, with that data, the government determines where it apportions roughly $800 billion toward schools, roads, hospitals, Medicaid, food stamps, unemployment benefits, housing vouchers, programs for seniors and disabled veterans, and so much more. Simply put, being counted has an extraordinary effect on day-to-day American life.

And yet, it is often considered an issue more suited for discussing in a civics class than at a political rally. It certainly generates nowhere near the cocktail party chatter, barbeque banter, or social media buzz as Trump’s unseating. The only it time it’s really garnered significant media attention was when the Trump administration tried last year to insert a citizenship question, and thereby depress census participation. Luckily, Democratic resistance led to the move being challenged in the courts, and, in June 2019, the Supreme Court ordered the question’s removal from the census.

While that episode rightfully galvanized Democrats—mainly because of its overt attempt to prevent immigrants from participating in the process—the flurry of census political drama should also reinforce the inherent power of the census in the first place. Trump wouldn’t have targeted the census if it wouldn’t possibly help his agenda. For that reason, Democrats need to prioritize boosting census turnout for 2020.

But rallying turnout will require a major public relations makeover. It will require giving the issue some sex appeal, showing how everyday people can take back their rights. And this, no doubt, can be made easier amid an impeachment inquiry and an exciting 2020 election.

Democrats and the activist community borne out of 2016 are best-suited to lead that campaign.  The basic Democratic messaging can be simple: incomplete census data impedes communities’ abilities to get the support they need. In 2010, two percent of the Black population was undercounted; as a result, cities with high Black populations may have lost out on millions of dollars in funding for important programs and services. Similarly, five percent of children under five years old living in the United States—roughly one million children—were not counted in 2010, leaving them under-resourced for a ten-year period.

Equally important, Democrats must emphasize that census data helps apportion congressional representation among the states, and ensure equal representation through redistricting. The census results provide population data that determine the allocation of seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, as well as state legislative districts, school districts, and voting precincts. Accurate data can help make sure that Congress and state legislatures reflect the increased number of residents who are people of color. These are all issues near and dear to Democrats’ hearts.

Importantly, 2020 arrives with a renewed American interest in restoring democracy and civic engagement. Democrats’ energy and determination to take back the White House can be coupled with a targeted campaign to increase census awareness.

Some groups, such as Census Counts (hosted by The Leadership Conference), the American Civil Liberties Union, and the NALEO Education Fund already have activated tremendous efforts to increase awareness and debunk some of the myths about the census. Cities and states similarly have their own efforts underway.

But there are four more angles to boost the census’s profile and get it treated with the urgency it deserves, alongside ousting Trump, next year.

Democrats can remind voters that census participation can restore a sense of control in their day-to-day lives. Providing the census with accurate data allows all of us to obtain more frequent bus service and more resources for schools, more hospitals and medical care targeted for our communities, and more expansive internet service and access. To folks who feel forgotten by the government and their elected leaders, census completion solidifies that each individual counts—both literally and figuratively.

Since 2016, many Americans have expressed feelings of powerlessness. During the Trump era, democracy is under assault, children are separated from their families at the border, female bodily autonomy is at risk, climate deregulation continues to flourish, and mass shootings have become the norm. Marches, protests, phone calls to elected officials, and social media posts have provided some outlet. But the 2020 census gives individuals a chance to exert power and influence over their daily lives.

Of course, public service campaigns can meaningfully drive participation. Celebrities can use their platforms to send an effective, non-partisan, public service message about the importance of being counted. Kim Kardashian uses her celebrity and platform to raise awareness for Criminal Justice Reform. Why can’t Lady Gaga, Beyoncé, Jay-Z, and Taylor Swift use theirs to encourage census participation and educate their followers on why this process matters? (Barack and Michelle Obama, if you’re reading, maybe you and some of your celebrity friends can use their platforms to help the cause.)

What’s more, promoting the census is an inherently pro-business stance that Democrats could seize. Money talks, and so does data. The business community recognizes that the census’s demographic information will influence where businesses grow, what products they create, and how to better reach customers. They should be among the loudest voices advancing the cause. In fact, some major corporations have already started. Recently, companies such as Nielsen, Warby Parker, Levi-Strauss, Univision, Uber, and Lyft have touted the importance of robust census participation and data collection. Even the conservative United States Chamber of Commerce, back in 2010, made the same plea. Now, it’s time for more businesses and powerful business groups to do the same.

Lastly, just like with voting, census participation should carry with it some good, old-fashioned patriotic pride, irrespective of political party affiliation. Just as “I voted” stickers adorn voters at polling places, patriotic #IGotCounted stickers can have the same effect. Online census participants should be able to share a social media feature celebrating that they just got counted. Local political parties can offer census sessions, where folks come by to get guidance logging onto the census questionnaires. Community centers can host a census party, with snacks and drinks on hand. These events will help folks carve out the time to complete their forms and increase the appetite for civic engagement.

Of course, census participation has not—as of this writing at least—become a Republican priority. So Democrats will have to lead the charge to demonstrate that completing the census is as critical a civic responsibility as casting one’s vote.

But while we all have a chance to make a difference in 2020 and the decade to follow, there remain some structural barriers to the census that will continue to hold some individuals back from participation.  For one, completing a census questionnaire engenders as much excitement as doing one’s taxes. It simply won’t make it onto the to-do list of people with busy lives.

Even more problematic, some populations face a language hurdle in completing the census. Undocumented immigrants bear legitimate concerns about making themselves vulnerable to deportation, given the aggressive ICE tactics embraced under the Trump administration. Others harbor fears about what the government will do with their highly personal information. Some of these barriers, however, can be mitigated in 2020, when the census can be completed online for the first time ever.

Now that the census will be more convenient to complete, the main objective for advocates will be to assuage concerns about confidentiality and educate the public about the potential and direct benefits their participation could have on their own communities.

But after a tumultuous three years—and a widespread sense for ordinary people that they are impotent in the face of Trump’s rule—the 2020 census might be just what Americans need: a shot at controlling their own destinies by counting themselves in. That may not be as exciting as getting rid of Trump, but it still is pretty darn sexy.

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Julie Rodin Zebrak

Julie Rodin Zebrak is a veteran attorney with nearly 20 years of experience at the Department of the Treasury and the Department of Justice. She is the founder and CEO of Yes Moms Can and the co-founder of Mamas4Kamala.