The new Census is the newest voter suppression tool

March 30, 2018
Op-Ed & Article

The author, a Democrat, represents the 4th District of North Carolina in the U.S. House.

North Carolina has been ground zero in a concerted, well-funded, and well-documented effort by self-styled conservatives to diminish the influence of minority voters - what some have called “the 50-year campaign to roll back the Voting Rights Act.” The congressional and legislative maps drawn by General Assembly Republicans have each been struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court as unconstitutional racial gerrymanders, while the voter ID law enacted in 2013 was found by a federal judge to “target African Americans with almost surgical precision.”

While these redistricting and voting rights cases continue to ricochet through the courts, a new front has been opened in the right-wing effort to suppress the minority vote: the United States Census.

This week, the Trump Administration announced that it will include a citizenship question in the 2020 Census - a move that civil rights groups have warned will have a chilling effect on participation in the survey, producing an inaccurate count of immigrants and other voters of color. This decision comes on the heels of a presidential budget request that would have under-funded the Census Bureau by more than $400 million, according to the Administration’s own cost estimates, and the nomination - and then withdrawal - of a senior Census official notorious for his defense of extreme partisan gerrymandering in North Carolina and elsewhere.

These actions fly in the face of centuries of bipartisan consensus on the importance of a precise and reliable Census count, which is required by the United States Constitution. Since then-Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson’s first Census following the American Revolution in 1790, elected leaders across the political spectrum have respected the need for reliable and accurate data regarding the people they represent. Beyond its significance for the allocation of congressional seats, an accurate count is also critical to ensuring proper allocation of federal resources among the states.

In fact, more than 130 federal programs - from Head Start to Medicare physician payments - use Census data to distribute more than $675 billion in federal funding annually, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. This means that an under-funded or inaccurate Census could have serious consequences for North Carolina, potentially costing our state more than $170 billion in federal funding over the next decade. In the extreme case, an inaccurate count could cost North Carolina a 14th congressional seat - something we are otherwise nearly certain to receive.

In response to the Administration’s efforts, the Census is likely to land in the courts alongside redistricting and voting rights; North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein has indicated that he is exploring legal options. But we cannot leave it at that: those who will be most affected by the decision—including residents of states like North Carolina - must demand a comprehensive, accurate, and fully funded Census from President Trump and Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross. It is, quite literally, time for North Carolinians to stand up and be counted.