WASHINGTON (CN) — Partisan frustrations over the 2020 census flared Thursday on Capitol Hill as House Democrats consulted experts on how to reach hard-to-count communities when the once-in-a-decade tally gets underway.
The 2020 census will begin this month in Alaska and kick off nationwide on April 1, with the district-by-district allocation of nearly $1.5 trillion in federal funding on the line.
After the Supreme Court unanimously rejected the addition of a citizenship question on the 2020 census in June, President Donald Trump issued an executive order compelling the Department of Homeland Security to share its data on citizenship with the Census Bureau, a process now underway.
But Democrats have for months stressed that the Trump administration’s push for such information will deter minority communities from participating in the census, resulting in population undercounts that will boost Republican numbers in cities that tend to be ethnically diverse and vote blue.
In the New York litigation that ultimately blocked the addition of a formal citizenship question on the census last year, officials uncovered a damning memo by a Republican political strategist that touted the question as a GOP redistricting strategy.
Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democrat representing the heavily minority boroughs of Queens and the Bronx, invoked that memo at Thursday’s hearing.
“We have seen that there is a documented paper trail here,” the freshman congresswoman said.
Representative Carolyn Maloney, a fellow New York Democrat who chairs the Committee on Government Oversight and Reform, said Trump’s illegal effort to add the citizenship question sowed fear and distrust in communities across the country.
“But this appears to be the point,” Maloney added.
For their part, Republicans said Democrats were more focused on attacking the president than launching the census.
Ohio Representative Jim Jordan, the committee’s ranking Republican, disputed the expert testimony produced in the New York trial that the citizenship question would discourage census participation.
He also falsely described the citizenship question as one solidified in history.
“We have been doing it for 200 years, until now,” Jordan falsely claimed.
A citizenship question has not appeared on the census since 1950, based on the Census Bureau’s own findings bureau that, even posed to a specific subset of people in a household, the question potentially did more to skew statistics than not.
Between 1890 and 1910, the citizenship-related question was posed only to foreign born men over 21.
Between 1970 and 2000, the citizenship question did appear on a long-form questionnaire distributed to one in six households in lieu of the census. The Census Bureau has for the last two decades sent what is known as the American Community Survey to one in 38 households in lieu of that questionnaire.
Experts called to testify at Thursday’s hearing were quick to push back against the Republican telling of past census takings.
“I dispute your understanding of history,” said John Yang, president of the Asian Americans Advancing Justice, one of many civil rights organizations challenging Trump’s executive order in federal court.
Yang emphasized that the American Community Survey is distinct from the census and sent on a rolling basis to just 3% of households across the U.S.
Representative Eleanor Norton, a Democrat representing the District of Columbia, criticized Republicans for belaboring the issue in the wake of legal defeat.
“I was amazed to see the ranking member’s remarks even after the Supreme Court, a conservative Supreme Court, has rescued the country from this issue,” Norton said.
Representative Gerald Connolly, a Virginia Democrat, chimed in that the bigggest blow to the citizenship question came from the federal judge who presided over the New York trial, rather than from Democrats.
Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League, testified Thursday that a hiring delay at the Census Bureau has also alarmed experts.
Though the 2020 census will be the first to operate almost entirely on a digital platform, Morial said up to 60% of Americans will wait until census takers go door-to-door.
This year’s count will be the largest population count in history, and Morial said the Census Bureau must rapidly increase hiring to ensure that thousands of Americans in minority and rural communities are not left without representation.
With the full census roll out less than three months away, Morial said: “We need to start ringing alarm bells.”
Arturo Vargas, chief executive officer of NALEO Educational Fund, a nonprofit committed to Latino participation in politics, said fear of the citizenship question will scare off many Latinos from participating in the census.
“This is exasperated by a hostile environment toward immigrants propagated by this administration,” Vargas said.
Immigrants are not the only group at risk of being left out. Kevin Allis, chief executive officer of the National Congress of American Indians, said the 2010 census undercounted American Indians by 4.9% — more than double the next undercounted population group — and that the Census Bureau has failed to address the root causes a decade later.
“We also exhibit many of the factors that contribute to communities being hard to count … including mistrust of government, concerns related to privacy and perceptions that participation will not lead to anything,” Allis said.
Republicans focused primarily on the undercounting of rural populations with limited access to internet. Kentuck Representative James Comer said 29.5% of his constituents have no internet or dial-up connection to take the 2020 census online.
The experts said the Census Bureau must be encouraged to hire local census takers to go door-to-door in order to increase response rates.
Experts called by the Democrats also said there is an urgent need to overcome fear by supporting local efforts to educate constituents that the citizenship question will not appear on the 2020 census, noting communities are most likely to trust teachers, health care providers and faith leaders who encourage census participation.
“They’re going to be much more trusted door-knockers than anyone from the federal government,” said Vanita Gupta, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.