Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of student produced stories looking at the 2020 census.
California is spending big on the 2020 Census, with amounts totaling $187.2 million. The stakes have never been higher for the Democrat-controlled state and serious efforts are being funneled towards obtaining an accurate count of every resident.
One major concern behind the state’s hefty spending is the possibility of losing a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. According to the Census Bureau’s 2019 population projections, California could lose one of its current 53 seats.
“We could stand to lose anywhere from one to two congressional seats,” said Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda Solis, in a Los Angeles Times article, and that could impact traditionally underserved communities such as where African American and Latino residents live.
The U.S. Constitution requires a census be taken of “every person” every 10 years on the zero number year and, based on population change or movement, electoral districts to be redrawn. If there is no change or movement, then the district stays the same.
Democratic counties often record smaller populations while Republican counties benefit from increasing populations, explained Jeff Davis, an Advanced Placement Government and U.S. History teacher at San Ramon Valley High School. In the past, this has provided Republicans with the power to redistrict states in a way so that Republicans are likely to be elected to the legislature.
Using census data, Republicans set up “safe-seat districts” that were overwhelming Republican, Davis said. That allowed them to gain control of the U.S. House and Senate in 2012. While the Democrats may have received more popular votes, Republicans won more districts.
“A political district is a geographic area from which voters choose representatives,” Davis said. “For the U.S. Senate, for example, the entire state is the district. But for the U.S. House of Representatives, the state has to be divided into districts. For California, that’s 53 districts or 53 representatives.”
Davis said an undercount of the California population benefits the Republicans because those who get missed are often hard-to-count communities such as immigrants who generally are more supportive of Democrats and their social policies.
For this reason, Democrats and immigrant activist groups have charged the Republican Party of deliberately trying to keep immigrants from being counted in the census. The Republicans have a history “of trying to prevent every person from being counted,” said María Alegría, chair of the Democratic Party of Contra Costa County.
Alegría cited the Trump administration’s failed effort to include a question about citizenship on the census questionnaire as an example.
“This has never been asked, and in my opinion was an effort to intimidate individuals who are undocumented or noncitizens,” she said.
Matt Shupe, chair of the Republican Party of Contra Costa County, said of this criticism: “I don’t think it’s fair to say that.” He added, “I believe that when it comes to districts, as far as voting, only citizens can vote [therefore] they should be proportioned in a way that represents American citizens.”
The census does not merely represent the nation’s population, but a central debate between the Republicans and Democrats as to whether undocumented immigrants are welcome in this country. Democrats have been more supportive of accommodating undocumented immigrants.
“We are a nation of immigrants,” said Alegría. “After all, the U.S. Constitution was drafted by immigrants who fled England and a king.” Moreover, “everyone in America should be treated fairly and with dignity, regardless of their status,” she said.
Both Alegría and Shupe said they wanted an accurate count in Contra Costa. “Every resident needs to be counted and we deserve to have our fair share of federal and state funding for our residents,” said Alegría.
“I think that it is incredibly important every census is accurate because the census essentially shapes how our government and budget is run,” said Shupe. “It decides how many congressional districts each state gets. How we allocate resources is reliant on an accurate census count.”
Izabella Ge is a junior and a member of the San Ramon Valley High School vjournalism club.
This story originally appeared as part of a special section in “CC Spin,” a county-wide student newspaper produced by students at participating Contra Costa County high schools.