I am a retired federal senior executive who worked for 20 years for the inspector general of the Department of Commerce. Oversight of the decennial census was one of our most important responsibilities. As an assistant inspector general, I had a front-row seat at the planning and conduct of the 2000 and 2010 decennial censuses.
The decennial census is this country’s largest peacetime mobilization of people and resources, and the challenges to a successful census are daunting. I have the highest respect for the dedication and expertise of the many nonpartisan career civil servants at the Census Bureau who work overtime each decade planning and conducting the upcoming census.
We in the IG’s office felt particular reverence for our responsibility to oversee the census because we understood that it is a pillar of democracy enshrined in the Constitution.
The census is the basis for apportionment, which determines how many congressional representatives each state gets. The census is also used by the states for redistricting, which is the drawing of congressional district boundaries, and for distributing hundreds of billions of dollars in federal funds throughout the decade. As the editorial in the Aug. 6 Albuquerque Journal pointed out, undercounting just 1% of our population would cause New Mexico to lose $780 million of federal funding throughout the decade.
An undercount means a loss of funding for health care, food assistance, public education, community development and many other critical needs. It also means that community and business planning would be hobbled because the actual number of persons living in a location will not be accurately known.
A significant loss of federal funds would be a cruel blow to the people of New Mexico at any time. During this pandemic and in its aftermath, it would be nothing short of tragic.
Against this backdrop, the actions taken by the Trump administration and Republicans to politicize the census and rig the outcome in their favor are abhorrent. First, in an effort to reduce the population counts in big cities and other Democratic areas, the administration attempted to add a citizenship question. The Supreme Court nixed this gambit in June of last year.
Soon after came Trump’s executive order setting the stage to exclude undocumented immigrants from census data used for redistricting, another maneuver designed to increase the power of Republicans.
July brought Trump’s memo excluding undocumented immigrants from the apportionment base, likely to be met with constitutional challenges. U.S. Sen. Tom Udall told the Journal that this action, “… was crafted to stoke more fear in immigrant communities and discourage families from participating in the census.”
And now the administration intends to end the count a month earlier than planned, curtailing the operation in which census takers knock on doors and collect data from households that did not respond to the census. This operation is crucial for obtaining data on the hardest-to-count populations including minorities, Native Americans, people in poverty, undocumented immigrants, non-English speakers, LBGTQ people and children.
New Mexico is considered one of the hardest-to-count states in the country. The prior threat of the citizenship question, the move to exclude undocumented immigrants from redistricting data, the recent directive to exclude such immigrants from the apportionment base, and now curtailing the duration of the nonresponse follow-up operation are guaranteed to make New Mexico’s historically large undercount even worse.
The loss of federal funds will hurt all New Mexicans regardless of party affiliation. A politicized census will also damage, perhaps irreparably, the reputation of the Census Bureau, our nation’s premier statistical agency.
The census is a mainstay of democracy, as our Founding Fathers intended. Trump’s attempts to manipulate the data collection process and outcomes should be seen for the naked political interference and severe blow to democracy that they are.