US Census, 2020 Elections Complicated by Pandemic

Voters wait in line to cast ballots at Riverside University High School in Milwaukee, Wis., on April 7, 2020. (CNS Photo/Joe Kelly)

LOS ANGELES (CN) — In a University of Southern California forum Wednesday, democracy watchdogs and civic engagement researchers said expanding vote-by-mail nationwide faces formidable barriers and could frustrate election officials already hampered by the outbreak of the novel coronavirus.

The coronavirus — which has claimed over 46,000 lives and infected nearly 847,000 people, according to data from Johns Hopkins University — has already impeded primary voting in the U.S. presidential election and poses challenges for the general election in November. 

Mindy Romero, director of USC’s California Civic Engagement Project, said at an online forum Wednesday many states aren’t planning on hosting “status quo” elections. 

“Every policy area has been impacted by Covid-19, including elections,” Romero said. “We’re likely to see some effect in November, or we have to plan as if we are.”

While vote-by-mail is used by 25% of the U.S. electorate, according to Romero, she said proposals to expand mail-in voting nationwide could widen current voter restrictions.

The proposal is part of a package of voting access programs backed by political figures such as former first lady Michelle Obama and opposed by President Donald Trump, who claims the voting method is susceptible to fraud.

“We don’t have a representative electorate in any state,” Romero said. “I want to be clear that mail-only is not a panacea.”

Many jurisdictions struggle to process mailed-in ballots, Romero said. Communities may also distrust the method or lack familiarity with it, meaning an in-person voting option ensures voters — especially those with disabilities or language access issues — receive assistance.

Some states require ID and signature verification with mail-in ballots while others make voters offer a legitimate reason for requesting a mailed ballot, restrictions that would be exacerbated with nationwide mail-only voting, Romero said.

“If we did, it would not be a good thing,” Romero said. “The data tell us we could face hundreds of thousands if not millions of cases of voter disenfranchisement.”

California Secretary of State Alex Padilla said officials are working to ensure voter access and have not altered planning for a November election.

“Whether in times of peace, times of war, even during the Great Depression and the Spanish flu in 1918, people voted,” Padilla told forum attendees. “It’s a matter of when there will be a November election, not if. The question is how to ensure the safety of voters, poll workers and elections staff.”

Padilla said 75% of the state’s 20.4 million voters received a mail-in ballot for the March 3 primary and that officials will send ballots to the remaining 5 million voters in November.

“If we get people to vote early by mail or safely in-person, that means slightly reduced lines at polling locations and smaller crowds on election day,” Padilla said. “It’s better for everyone from a public health standpoint.”

Padilla came under fire last month after the LA County Board of Supervisors criticized voting on Super Tuesday when voters stood in line for hours to vote and encountered broken voting machines.

Nearly 17,000 LA County residents did not receive mail-in ballots in time to vote, according to the county.

Congress should fund a $2 billion overhaul of the U.S. election system to ensure access to mail-in ballots and online registration, Padilla said, adding that California counties could see fewer poll workers on election day if fear Covid-19 infection at crowded polls.

“There’s nothing more fundamental to our country than our democracy,” Padilla said. “We’re still asking for more funding in the next round of the [federal] stimulus.”

With more residents abiding by stay-at-home orders, governments could also use this moment to educate “captive” voters about vote-by-mail options as well as the 2020 census, Padilla said. 

Stay-at-home orders issued nationwide are critical to stemming the spread of the novel coronavirus but have also hampered the Census Bureau’s $500 million effort to boost participation.

Karen Flynn, president of Common Cause, said any delay should come with a boost in funding for local education campaigns and mailers that explain to residents what the delay means in relation to the pandemic.

“There could be confusion about the census’ April 1 reference date,” Flynn told attendees. “For many communities, that is a time when more people were probably home, such as college students who were away from school and families who had an extra person they were caring for.”

Census data is used to shape state legislative maps and determine how many congressional seats and Electoral College votes each state is allocated. It also guides distribution of trillions in federal spending.

As of Wednesday, the national response rate stands at nearly 52%, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.

California’s response rate is almost 53%. In Los Angeles County, the state’s most populous county with over 10 million residents, 49% have filled out the census. 

In March, the bureau temporarily suspended field activity related to data collection. It plans to reactivate in June but has asked Congress for an extension until Oct. 31. 

Under that timeline, the bureau would deliver apportionment data to the occupant of the White House by April 30, 2021, and to U.S. states by July 31, 2021.

But Congress has not indicated it will grant the extension.

Padilla said nationwide census outreach efforts — including the Golden State’s $187 million campaign — are targeted with “political manipulation” by politicians.

“All that has ground to a halt because of Covid-19,” Padilla said. “To delay with the intention to do this right, that’s one thing. But everything is suspect under this presidential administration.”

Padilla chided the Trump administration’s bid to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census, a move that despite being blocked by the U.S. Supreme Court may still chill participation by immigrants.

Christian Grose, director of the USC Schwarzenegger Institute for State and Global Policy, said in the discussion accurate and comprehensive census data is key to infusing equity into the democratic process.

Though apportionment typically relies on census info, Grose said half of U.S. states allow for district mapping based on other population data, adding watchdog groups should be wary of partisan results from such action.

Republican-controlled legislative bodies might overcount rural areas where more conservative voters may reside, whereas Democratic lawmakers might push for an overcount of urban areas, Grose said.

“Many states don’t require census data for redistricting,” Grose said. “There are equal protection issues if census data is used for one map but other data is used for others. Also, if data comes in late, the rush to draw district lines could lead to voting rights violations.”

Flynn said at least 17 states have district remapping that will be delayed if the census is delayed.

“Some states may postpone redistricting in order to give themselves an electoral advantage,” Flynn said. “Some states want to base [legislative redistricting] on the number of adult citizens over 18 in the district and not the total population.”

Grose said one solution is to grant redistricting authority to independent groups such as the California Citizens Redistricting Commission, which will be used in the 2022 redistricting cycle. 

“Partisan gerrymandering is the best known but there are also other forms [of partisan maneuvering],” Grose said. “We need to keep our eye on the ball.”

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