The decennial census plays a direct role in American politics. The 10 minutes you take to answer nine questions has a long-lasting impact, extending to how much funding a state gets, how this funding is distributed, who gets elected and who runs the country.
As we look at an America that’s ravaged by the COVID-19 pandemic, beset by racial inequities, devastated by rising food insecurity and housing instability, and depressed by economic imbalances, it’s becoming urgent, even imperative, that California and San Francisco produce an accurate census.
The 2020 census is a record, a snapshot, of all those living in America on April 1, 2020. The census gets this snapshot by asking a set of questions. The questions aren’t difficult. The census questionnaire asks for your name, sex, age, date of birth, race/ethnicity, who else is in your household (including kids) and whether you rent or own your place of residence.
Census responses are confidential and the census bureau maintains that census information is “used for statistical purposes only.” Your answers will not be sent to law enforcement or the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. There are no citizenship questions, no immigration status questions, no educational qualifications questions, no criminal record questions, no length of stay questions and no voting record questions on the census.
Since my last column, about a month ago, when I requested every San Francisco resident to respond to the census, some of you did. On July 31, I had reported that about 60.6 percent of San Franciscans had self-responded to the census. A month later, as of Aug. 31, that number has inched up to 64.1. Yet, we are still short. San Francisco’s response rate is less than the national response rate of 65 percent and California’s response rate of 67.3 percent and less than the self-response rates of the last two censuses. In 2010, the self-response rate for San Francisco was 68.5 percent and in 2000 it was 68 percent.
Thirty-six percent of San Francisco residents still need to fill out this short questionnaire. Surely, we can do better.
The census data is used to allocate federal resources to states, counties and cities — resources for schools, hospitals, roads, lunch programs, affordable housing, social services and more. Additionally, local legislators use census data to take the pulse of The City in order to predict and plan for the future.
There are three ways that the census plays a role in America’s representative democracy.
First, seats in the House of Representatives are allocated based on the census count of each state. Each state is guaranteed one representative at least, and the rest depends on the population. Currently, California is the most populous state with 53 representatives in Congress.
David Schultz, professor of political science and legal studies at Hamline University in Minnesota analyzes how the census impacts the 2020 Congress and state legislature races. “In terms of Congress, the 2010 Census distributed the U.S. House seats across the 50 states, giving some states more representation than others. This allocation is the starting point for the battle for partisan control of the U.S. House of Representatives this year and, again, the relative strength of different states in the U.S. House of Representatives.”
Secondly, the number of electors assigned to a state in the Electoral College is equal to the total membership of that state in the Senate and House of Representatives. Therefore, the size of the state’s delegation in the Electoral College is dependent on the number of members in the House of Representatives, which is dependent on the census count. California has 55 (53 representatives and two senators) of the 538 electoral votes. It takes 270 electoral votes to win the presidency. An accurate census count is critical to ensure California’s electoral count and hence its influence in electing the president and vice president of the United States.
Finally, census data is used for redistricting, which has a direct bearing on who gets elected to Congress. Every 10 years, every state redraws their legislative and congressional districts so as to ensure that each legislative district has relatively equal population and minority voters have an equal opportunity to participate in the political process. The redistricting map is drawn using block-level data from the decennial census. So, the 2020 Congress and state legislature races will depend on the 2010 Census.
If you’re not sure how to go about filling out the census, here’s a message from San Francisco’s Office of Civic Engagement and Immigrant Affairs: Everyone should do the census online at my2020census.gov or by phone at (844) 330-2020 before Sept. 30. It won’t take long and you don’t need a pin code or a password. Help San Francisco get our fair share. Learn more at sfcounts.org.
There are 24 days left for the self-reporting phase of the census and 58 days left for the elections. Respond to the census and make your voice heard, your presence felt and your vote count.
Jaya Padmanabhan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @jayapadmanabhan. She is a guest columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of The Examiner.