Why the Census Matters I: Redistricting

We are nearing the midway point in the year in between when Census 2010 forms first arrive in American households (March 2010) and when the U.S. Census Bureau will deliver redistricting data to states (March 2011).

And it’s a really big deal.

Much of the discussion of the importance of the U.S. Census within the nonprofit sector (and, don’t get me wrong, I’m glad that there is so much) centers on how Census data are used in federal funding decisions. That’s undoubtedly important, as population figures are used to apportion community development and community services block grants, some funds from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and other critical dollars that support essential state and local government and private nonprofit programming.

But, since we know that who’s elected matters a great deal for the kinds of policies that we’ll be able to win, no pass-through grant impact is as great as the potential electoral consequences of the Census. As social justice advocates, we have to care about the Census and its import for redistricting both so that we can impress upon our communities the importance of their participation AND so that we can stay engaged in the processes that will ultimately result in the redrawn maps.

Although it relates to the 2000 Census, this guide by the Asian American Justice Center features commentary from the Latino, Asian, and African-American communities about how redistricting affects them and includes a quite extensive overview of the redistricting process that is almost entirely still relevant in 2010.

While the impact of an undercount of traditionally undercounted communities is easier to quantify in the fiscal aid realm than in electoral redistricting, there are clear trends about which communities are most often undercounted and, of course, clear patterns about where they live. The precise extent of the undercount is always in dispute, but everyone acknowledges that it’s harder to count low-income communities, communities of color, and new immigrants, in particular. In addition, there is some evidence that areas hit hard by the current economic recession may be harder to count, both because state Census outreach budgets are so restricted and because people may have become more transient to cope with housing crises and job losses.

Hopefully your nonprofit organization is already actively engaged in Census outreach with those you serve; nonprofit social service organizations are such a critical link in the Census outreach effort that their shortage in some of the most devastated of our communities is spurring even greater concerns about inadequate Census participation there. You have a critically important role to play in communicating the importance of Census participation (and how it connects to subsequent political representation) to those you serve, and in advocating on behalf of that community with the U.S. Census Bureau, to be sure that privacy protections and language accommodations and other essential efforts are made to bridge the gaps.

What often doesn’t receive attention, often, is the work that must be done after all of those Census forms are filled out and sent in and even analyzed and returned to the states. It might surprise you to know that redistricting based on new Census figures is not an entirely apolitical process, that data can be made to ‘say’ different things to different people, and that the same kind of effort that goes into making sure that marginalized communities are counted in the Census needs to be mounted to ensure that their ‘count’ really counts.

While there are those who optimistically hope that the ascendancy of more sophisticated mapping technologies will make redistricting conclusions so foregone that even the most polarized politicians can’t dispute them, don’t count me among them.

There are several factors that influence the process of redistricting in one’s state, and I’m by no means an expert on all of them. In most states, the legislature begins the process, which gives a decided advantage to the party that controls it. There’s obviously a different dynamic when a state will lose, rather than gain, representation; and many years, a majority of state redistricting plans (in 1990, it was 41/50) end up in court. Some states require that the plans be approved by the U.S. Justice Department to ensure that they comply with the Voting Rights Act.

So what does this mean for social justice advocates who are likely to be somewhat worn out from the effort of reassuring people about the safety of participating in the Census and convincing them that it should be a priority for their harried lives?

We’ve got to bring our A game to this one, folks. We need to:

  • Work now with the political parties in our state to let them know that this is a priority and that we’ll be closely monitoring the process from the beginning
  • Raise the issue with media–we need to raise the specter of what an unfair redistricting would mean for our communities and explain the process, especially around the windows of opportunity that arise due to interest in the Census generally
  • Develop a lobbying strategy around the legislation that will be advanced to support the preferred redistricting plan, especially targeting legislators from the majority party who may be vulnerable to pressure from our allies
  • Plan for a potential legal challenge, including lining up possible representation and assistance crafting our arguments
  • Organize, agitate, and mobilize our base, to make what can seem like a totally esoteric issue come alive for their daily realities

    Let’s make sure we close the loop on this one, and really get our communities what they need for the next 10 years.

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