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EDITORIAL: How many voters are missing?


WHERE HAVE 2,492 people gone? That figure is the estimate of drop in the population of Columbia County between 2010 and 2017. Back in 2010 the United States Census Bureau counted 63,096 residents in the county. Now the there are only 60,604 of us.

Some folks migrated to warmer places or to states with lower taxes, or both. We’re much older than the U.S. population as a whole, so some of the missing aren’t missing at all. They’re just gone. And then there are those not counted.

The Census Bureau tries to count everybody living in the United States once every decade as required by the Constitution. For the next census in 2020 we’ll have the option of filling out the census questionnaire either on paper or online, using our own digital device or a public library computer.

Officials from the Census Bureau recently held a public meeting in Hudson to discuss the importance of the 2020 headcount and to answer questions about the process. One of the big worries here, as elsewhere, is that data about individuals–like how many people are living in a single dwelling, for example–will find its way into the hands of law enforcement agencies.

Federal law prohibits the Census Bureau from sharing any personal data for 72 years after it is collected. But in the early 1940s census records were used to round up Americans of Japanese origin on the West Coast and force them into remote internment camps for the duration of World War II. In the modern digital age it’s not clear that any data can be kept secret, regardless of laws meant to protect individual privacy.

Census enumerators will visit the homes of folks who either don’t fill out the census questionnaire or who leave too many questions unanswered, counting people and collecting vital statistics about their living conditions. The more people counted the better it is for the community. Assemblymember Didi Barrett (D-106th) told the Hudson meeting that the state loses $2,600 in federal aid for every person the census misses.

Under normal circumstances everybody who lives in this county and country has an obligation to respond to the census. If nothing else, if we have a larger population we will be eligible for more assistance with less of a burden on our property taxes. But there’s nothing normal about these times.

A struggle is playing out as this is written in the Supreme Court over the inclusion of a series of questions in all census forms about citizenship. Not only would the form ask about the citizenship of each person, the questionnaire also distinguishes between types of citizens–born to U.S. parents abroad, born in Puerto Rico, etc.

The government can get this data from smaller samples and it might be helpful, but at what cost? The question implies that people born here inherit a class of citizenship that is somehow superior to the citizenship conferred by naturalization. That sounds like monarchy.

Advocacy groups and states with large immigrant populations point out that these questions make immigrants fearful that the information they give will end up in the hands of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and that this fear will lead to a severe undercount, even of citizens who have family or friends who are not naturalized. They will avoid the enumerators.

Immigrants have reason to be fearful of such questions. Last summer the Trump administration created a task force to “denaturalize” immigrants who allegedly lied to the government.

The states and advocacy groups that are at the Supreme Court are pressing for the right to question U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilber Ross, who oversees the Census Bureau, about the origin and need for the questions added to all 2020 census forms. Secretary Ross has said the Department of Justice asked that the questions be part of the census. But documents uncovered so far suggest the citizenship questions are political and are aimed at suppressing voter turnout.

And that’s really what’s at stake here. In our democracy a smaller population results in less political power. The voters who remain do not reflect the population. The federal government supposedly wants the citizenship question on all census forms to gather information needed to enforce the Voting Rights Act but the government has shown little interest in pursuing voting rights cases.

In this atmosphere of official hostility against immigrants the citizenship question on the census has become is a threat to democracy not a tool to expand it. Congress should remove the question from the main census form.

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