Undercounting could mean a further shift of power from urban to rural areas, perhaps resulting in even fewer Congressional representatives.
For the first time since 1950, the US Census Bureau is planning to ask people if they are citizens in 2020. Though the Trump Justice Department claims this question will help protect minority populations, most likely it will have the opposite effect. If immigrants avoid answering the census for fear of being targeted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), they will be undercounted. It could mean a further shift of power from urban to rural areas, perhaps resulting in even fewer Congressional representatives.
Why is the US census important?
Representative democracies conduct a regular census—a counting of all the people—to determine how many democratic representatives each area gets. The United States has conducted a census counting all the people every 10 years without fail and has based congressional representation on total-population counts.
But anti-democratic forces have always felt some people shouldn’t count. In the original US Constitution, Native Americans didn’t count at all, and slaves only counted for three-fifths of a person in determining representation. A few years ago, Texans brought a lawsuit arguing that only voting-eligible people should count. The Supreme Court smacked them down, reaffirming that representation should be based on total-population numbers. Now, opponents of equal representation are trying a different tactic: manipulating the census so that it doesn’t actually count the total population.
The census doesn’t perfectly count total population—it consistently undercounts Black and Hispanic populations. But it has been moving in the right direction, reducing the undercount of the Hispanic population from five percent in 1990 to under two percent in 2010. Adding a citizenship question would likely reverse that trend. Four former census directors warned that adding a question about citizenship would undermine the accuracy of the count, creating “bad census data.”
What could ‘bad census data’ mean for Cascadia?
The Seattle metropolitan area has one of the largest immigrant populations in the country. If the 2020 census undercounts the population of the Seattle area, it will skew the numbers that the Washington redistricting commission uses to re-draw district lines in 2021. Seattle area districts would have more people than rural districts, so Seattle-area voters would have fewer representatives per person compared to their rural counterparts. Then again, many immigrants live in rural Washington and also risk getting undercounted. More than one-quarter of Washingtonians are either immigrants or children of immigrants.
Oregon, with its growing population, is widely expected to gain a Congressional seat after the 2021 redistricting, going from five representatives to six. But nearly 6 percent of Oregonians are not US citizens, a higher percentage than 31 other states. If the census undercounts non-citizens, then another state might get an extra representative at Oregon’s expense. For example, West Virginia is now expected to go down from three to two representatives, but it has the lowest non-citizen population of all states, so an inaccurate census count could benefit that state.
Representative democracy should represent all the people
When the United States was first founded, slaveholders wanted to count Black people in the census so that the White people living near them (mostly in rural areas) could get more power in Congress. But now conservatives appear to want to stop properly counting Brown people in the census so that the people living near them (mostly in urban areas) will have less power in Congress. The tactics may be different, but the manipulation of rules to under count people of color feels the same.
Sightline’s Fall Fund Drive is happening now! Give to Sightline today and support smart policy solutions for a sustainable future.
Representative democracy means all the people get representation. All the people means no one gets to pick and choose some people who sometimes get counted, but only when it serves political purposes. Children can’t vote, but they still get representation. Non-citizens can’t vote, but they still live and work and pay taxes in US communities, so they should still get representation.
All the people. All the time.