NORWALK, Conn. – If a “perfect storm” derails the 2020 Census, Congress won’t be reapportioned and there will be far-reaching consequences, census expert Terri Ann Lowenthal said at a recent Norwalk forum.
Among other issues, under-representation of communities of color could be accentuated, Lowenthal said at a Jan. 27 League of Women Voters forum in Norwalk High School.
“The bottom line is that lawmakers and civic leaders can’t make smart decisions and you can’t hold them accountable without an accurate census,” she said.
Video by Harold Cobin at end of story
Lowenthal is a nationally recognized expert on the census, the League said. She had a 14-year career as a congressional aide in both the House and Senate, served as staff director of the House census oversight subcommittee from 1987-94, and later covered the Census Bureau and broader federal statistical activities for the 2008 Obama Presidential Transition Team, according to her website.
Lowenthal was joined onstage at Norwalk High by a panel of community activists, each of whom vowed to work toward educating residents so they would participate in the census, regardless of whether they are citizens.
“I think it’s just really telling that an organization like the League of Women Voters, bless you all, makes this front and center because the census is part of a civic engagement continuum,” Lowenthal said. “People forget, a lot of people think of voting, but it starts with the census. And then there’s redistricting – the allocation of political representation –and then there’s voting. And then we start again, 10 years later.”
Lowenthal emphasized that “the first responsibility of the federal government in the Constitution is the census.”
“The Founders of our fledgling nation had a bold and ambitious plan to empower the people over their new government,” the Census Bureau states on its website. “The plan was to count every person living in the newly created United States of America, and to use that count to determine representation in the Congress.”
But there’s “sobering news,” Lowenthal said. “I do see a confluence of unprecedented factors, many outside of the Census Bureau’s control, that threaten to create a perfect storm in 2020 and thwart a good count.”
Insufficient funding has led the Census Bureau to “delay cut back and cancel a lot of important testing throughout this decade and remember the Census is unique among governmental activities. It cannot wait if it doesn’t have its funding to do what it has to do. It must be done, the Constitution says so, every 10 years and there are no do overs,” she said.
The second issue is that “people are increasing reluctant to provide personal information online,” she said, and increasing use of technology introduces the risk of hacking or disinformation campaigns.
The third factor is the “palpable climate of fear in many communities” due to what Lowenthal described as the “anti-immigrant rhetoric coming from the Trump Administration, which will drive “even people who might be in the country legally” into the shadows, she said. The Census Bureau cannot share residents’ information with other governmental agency or court of law, but she is concerned that “many people do not trust this administrations’ intentions and they are skeptical now that their responses won’t be used somehow to harm them or their families.”
Then there’s the “citizenship question added at eleventh hour” when the Justice Department, at the request of the Trump Administration, in March asked the Census Bureau to reinstate a question that hasn’t been asked since 1950, “without any field testing or consultation” despite fears that the late change would reduce participation and increase costs, Lowenthal said. She noted that the a legal challenge to the question is pending.
Then there’s the “heated presidential primary season smack in the middle of this census,” she said. “I do feel the census is the administration’s next front in its war on immigration. I think that’s going to play out over the next year.”
Lowenthal asked the panel what they thought they would do to get the populations they serve to answer questions in the census.
Patty Santos and Fernando Santiago said 90 percent of their clients at the Family & Children’s Agency are undocumented.
“I think we should find a venue to kind of give them the information, explain it to them what the census is, how it works, and to hear it from someone who is trained in the census,” Santiago said. “I think that works better than us giving them the information, however, I find it kind of hard walking away being that I pride myself on the integrity of my work and my word, and if I can’t give them certainty that them asking a question isn’t going to get them in trouble, it kind of makes me want to hold back also.”
People who feel threatened need to be spoken to face-to-face by people who are in their corner, NAACP member Darius Williams said.
Moina Noor said that 75 percent of the Al Madany Islamic Center’s congregants are immigrants, many of whom come from predominantly Muslim countries.
“I think there will be fear,” Noor said. She added that leaders need to mobilize to get congregants to register to vote, but there are still language barriers and computer literacy issue to overcome.
Advocates “who understand the importance of the census and want to encourage everyone to participate are now not sure that we have the confidence that this Justice Department and this Department of Homeland Security won’t somehow try to find a way to breach the strict confidentiality protections,” Lowenthal said.
An audience member asked if a completed census form would be negated if the citizenship question weren’t answered.
“The Census Bureau can’t say this because the law requires your response to the census – though nobody has gone to jail for not answering – and therefore it requires a response to every question … Yes, you can submit your form if you have not answered all the questions. You will be able to do so online,” despite prompts to answer the question, Lowenthal replied.
“The Census Bureau doesn’t have the resources and the people to go knock on a door if you just skipped a question or two. They will use administrative data that they have from other agencies… and modeling to help fill in the blanks,” she explained.
Rather than telling frightened citizens to violate the law, “I would say, ‘Well, you know, while the law does require your response, do the best you can, it’s really important to be counted,’” she said.
“I feel like I need the reassurance first, myself,” Santos said. “This is a topic that touches close to home because I was undocumented for many years, I became a resident and now I am a citizen. But I know what it feels like to answer those type of questions. I feel like the process for me personally will be for me to get reassurance first, before I can go out and (educate) our clients.”
Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz is expected to announce the creation of the Connecticut Complete Count Committee (CCCC) to inform and help direct the State’s efforts in the upcoming 2020 Census, she said in a Friday email.
League member Elsa Peterson Obuchowski said Sunday, “Mayor Rilling has delegated Norwalk’s Complete Count Committee formation to Director of Economic Development Jessica Casey.”