When Americans voted for president last year, probably few had the 2020 U.S. Census in mind. That’s too bad because the census will profoundly shape politics in the next decade, and voters ended up choosing a president and Congress that seem to have little interest in an accurate count.
The Constitution requires an enumeration of U.S. residents every 10 years. The results determine how many seats each state gets in the House of Representatives. That, in turn, sets how many electoral votes each state is worth in presidential elections.
When the census undercounts people, those people tend to be members of Democratic-leaning demographics. Think communities of color, immigrants and young people. Count fewer of them, and things swing toward the GOP and red states.
Republicans therefore have rarely gone out of their way to ensure census accuracy. President Donald Trump is showing he is no different and reportedly is leaning toward appointing Thomas Brunell to be deputy director of the U.S. Census Bureau.
Traditionally, the job has gone to a nonpartisan bureaucrat. That isn’t Brunell. He is a political science professor with no experience leading a large bureaucracy. Worse, he is no fan of balanced electoral maps. He is the author of a book titled “Redistricting and Representation: Why Competitive Elections Are Bad For America,” and he has defended partisan Republican maps in court.
The reaction to his possible nomination was so negative Trump had to pull back from naming him as Census Bureau director. Even with a Republican majority in the Senate, confirmation was not guaranteed. However, naming him deputy director doesn’t require confirmation.
Readers would be forgiven for thinking, “So what? It’s just a deputy director,” but this deputy director is immensely important. He or she handles running the census and overseeing spending. As Politico puts it, “The deputy director is effectively the chief operating office and chief financial officer at the Census Bureau.”
This isn’t just about seats in Congress. The census informs how state and local electoral districts are drawn as well and influences how much money states receive from the federal government under many programs.
A few years before each decennial census, Congress usually ramps up funding for the Census Bureau so that it can get everything set up in time for an efficient enumeration. This time around, Republican lawmakers haven’t come up with the cash, and the bureau has canceled or delayed some of its testing and communications plans as a result.
What early tests have occurred have found that immigrants are hesitant to take part in the census over concerns that officials could use their information to identify people for deportation. Overcoming that fear won’t be easy.
The nation cannot afford to have the census turn into a debacle. For example, California’s population growth has stabilized relative to the rest of the nation, and we are predicted to hold even in 2020 with 53 seats. Imagine the howls and outrage if undercounting communities with large Latino and black populations led to this state losing a House seat. The legitimacy of not just individual lawmakers but the system itself could be called into question.
The nation’s founders knew that an accurate census was essential to a successful representative democracy. If Trump and Co. blow it in 2020, America will be stuck with the effects for a decade.