Guest Columnist

Population counts too critical for politics

An attendee holds her new country’s flag and her naturalization papers as she is sworn in during a U.S. citizenship ceremony in Los Angeles during 2017. (Mike Blake/Reuters)
An attendee holds her new country’s flag and her naturalization papers as she is sworn in during a U.S. citizenship ceremony in Los Angeles during 2017. (Mike Blake/Reuters)

Recently, the U.S. Commerce Department revealed that it plans to ask every person in America about their citizenship status on the 2020 Census form.

The question, which is unnecessary and intrusive, has not been used widely in the census since 1960. Following that announcement, on Tuesday, April 3, 17 states (including Iowa), Washington, D.C. and six cities sued the U.S. government on the grounds that the question is unconstitutional.

The U.S. Constitution calls for an accurate population count every 10 years, not a citizenship count. Still, according to the Pew Research Institute, “a citizenship question was asked in each decennial census of the total population from 1890 to 1950” and also in 1820, 1830 and 1870. Only in 1960, on the eve of the Civil Rights Movement that led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, was the decision made to send the question only to sample households receiving a long form; and it was removed altogether from the 2010 Census form.

The League of Women Voters believes that whether the courts decide that the question is constitutional or not, it is certainly the wrong question to ask at this moment in time. In the current atmosphere of increasing hostility towards non-white immigrants in general and illegal immigrants in particular (some asylum seeking), the Commerce Department’s action will almost certainly frighten not only immigrants but in some cases their relatives and friends away from participating. The resulting Census numbers will be artificially low and certainly inaccurate, and more inaccurate in areas with larger numbers of international residents.

Population counts are critical to all communities, and millions of people including community groups, local officials and businesses rely on accurate Census data. The Census is the basis for fair political representation as the information is used to draw district lines to reflect population. It also allows for the fair distribution of resources to states and communities for public safety, disaster response, education and hospitals.

An accurate Census is not a partisan issue. It’s important to get the 2020 Census right the first time. There is only one chance every 10 years to count. It must be done accurately and fairly.

• Syndy Conger is president of the League of Women Voters of Johnson County.

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