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Editorial: Politics of counting complicate 2020 census
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Traffic flows through the intersection at E E Butler Parkway and Jesse Jewell Parkway on Friday, Dec. 14, 2018. - photo by Austin Steele

The battle lines are being drawn for political warfare in 2020, and they aren’t related to the upcoming election cycle.

The looming 2020 census effort is being painted with the same partisan political brushstrokes that seem to color everything related to the federal government these days, and the spoils to be enjoyed by the victors are high indeed.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear arguments on what promises to be a most significant piece of the census political puzzle — whether those responding to the census questionnaires can be asked if they are American citizens.

Following the Trump administration’s announcement last year that it planned to ask that question as part of the data gathering process that happens every 10 years, lawsuits were filed to challenge the validity of doing so. Three federal district judges have ruled the question is inappropriate and cannot be included; the Supreme Court has agreed to review one of those rulings and to decide the issue of whether such a question as part of the census is constitutional.

The “enumeration clause” of the Constitution requires that the federal government conduct a count of those living in the country as a means of deciding how members of the U.S. House of Representatives will be allocated among the states. While originally conceived as a means of assuring an appropriate division of political power, the population counts gathered in the census have also come to be the deciding factor in determining where federal dollars are allocated and spent for a variety of different programs.

The Times editorial board

Staff members

  • Norman Baggs, general manager
  • Shannon Casas, editor in chief

Community members

  • Cheryl Brown
  • David George
  • Mandy Harris
  • Brent Hoffman
  • J.C. Smith
  • Tom Vivelo

The citizenship question is not something that originated with the Trump administration, nor is it a new concept for the census process. From the early 1800s to 1950, most census efforts included asking if the respondents were citizens, and even as recently as 2000 some of those who participated in the data collection process were asked that question.

The administration has argued that citizenship is data needed to assure compliance in application of the federal Voting Rights Act.

Legal challenges to the citizenship question have come from various cities, counties and states, as well as civil rights organizations. In general, they argue that including the question guarantees an undercounting of noncitizens who may be reluctant to participate in the census, and thus fails to achieve the goal of allocating political districts based on an accurate count of the population.

The population data gathered by the 2020 census will be the foundation for the redrawing in 2022 not only of federal U.S. House districts, but also political districts at the local and state level. How those lines are drawn will go a long way toward determining which political party gains or loses power over the next decade.

Across the nation, including here in Gainesville, groups are organizing to make sure various demographics are not undercounted when the actual census starts in January of next year. They hope to improve the participation of traditionally “hard to count” residents of the nation, including minority groups, those for whom English is not a primary language, children and the homeless.

In Georgia, Stacy Abrams, the loser in last year’s hard-fought gubernatorial campaign and the new darling of the national Democratic Party, is spearheading an effort called Fair Count to push for inclusion in the census for those who might otherwise not be counted.

Have no doubt that there are partisan political issues involved. Remember that the census data is used to draw political election districts, and many of those typically uncounted by the census profile as more likely to support Democrats than Republicans.

The 2020 census already will include some measures that will hopefully result in a more accurate national count of people. For the first time, households will be allowed to respond online or by calling a toll-free telephone number rather than mailing in a traditional data collection form.

Once it is completed and the data collected, census information will provide the foundation for periodic population updates and forecasts for the next decade, such as the estimate released last week that Hall County’s population had topped the 200,000 mark by July 1 of last year, having grown 1.4 percent in a year’s time.

But such forecasts are based on official census data taken once a decade, and the estimation for Hall County is that some 23 percent of residents failed to take part in the 2010 census at all. Nationally the census participation rate for 2010 is estimated at 74 percent, meaning that a quarter of the nation’s residents were not counted.

Where that quarter of the population lives and who they are will make a difference in the allocation of trillions of dollars for federal programs based on population, as well as helping to determine the balance of political power in the country.

Make no mistake, the census is a political battleground, and the Supreme Court’s decision on whether it is appropriate to ask about citizenship is perhaps the biggest line that will be drawn in the sand.

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