Hard to Count: Local Democrats say 2020 census efforts divide along partisan lines


Graphic by Catherine Buchaniec

Evanston political organizations gave their reactions to early 2020 election results.

Isabelle Sarraf, Development and Recruitment Editor

As self-response rates plateau and the pandemic dominates news coverage, Democratic organizations say there is a partisan influence in the language and efforts around 2020 census counting efforts.

The U.S. Census Bureau extended the census self-response period to October 31 to accommodate for COVID-19. But as many counting efforts remain on the backburner, local Democrats worry misleading information from the Republican Party may hurt counting efforts.

Marilyn Sanders, the Census Bureau’s Chicago regional director, said the census is a bipartisan effort following the government’s Constitutional mandate to count every resident in the country.

“As a federal agent representing a (large) region, my mission is totally outside of any partisan group,” Sanders said. “It is totally focused on getting that complete count.”

She said the Bureau strives for a full count so it can correctly guide congressional representation, reapportionment and redistricting. This year’s census data, Sanders said, will inform investment in local businesses and educational resources.

Children are one of the largest undercounted groups in the country, according to the Census Bureau. In 2010, the census did not count nearly 1 million children in the country, so Sanders said ensuring every child is counted remains a focus this year. She said public schools and Generation Z students depend on the data to maximize their next ten years of education.

Though outreach directly from the Census Bureau is labeled as nonpartisan, Maria Fitzsimmons, census director for the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, said there have been recent attempts on behalf of Republicans to “confuse people” about the nature of the census.

In February, the Republican National Convention sent a mailer across the country that appeared to be a Census form and was labeled “2020 Congressional District Census,” Fitzsimmons said. Many individuals working with her organization reported receiving the mailer three months ago, she said.

While she cannot claim the exact intentions of the mailer, Fitzsimmons said the “poor wording” could have caused people to fill out the mailer instead of completing the 2020 Census. The mailer, she said, could disproportionately affect the representation of poor people, people of color and immigrant communities in the actual census self-response rate.

“Having an accurate count of who is in each district and making sure that the process of redistricting is fair is a great source of political power,” Fitzsimmons said. “There are people in the world who want to limit our representation.”

Michelle Jordan, the Democratic Party of Evanston president, said while everyone’s forced to stay home, it’s important to remind people they’re not powerless.

The Evanston resident said she felt empowered filling out the census form because it symbolized the power of the individual to affect change. Completing the census form, she said, is a small way for people to impact their government and call resources to their communities.

Describing the last census as a “dogfight” that opened political fissures, Jordan said Illinois’ Latinx community was vastly undercounted in 2010, which resulted in the loss of a congressional seat. Jordan said as a Democrat, it’s important to her that elected officials demographically represent their constituents. Partisanship has affected the language and efforts around the 2020 Census, she said.

“I’m not sure that the Republicans share the same dedication (as) the Democrats in getting an accurate count,” Jordan said. “If marginalized groups are undercounted, I don’t think that’s keeping them up at night.”

Maia Spoto contributed reporting.

Clarification: A previous version of the article misrepresented Michelle Jordan’s position. Jordan spoke to the Daily as the president of the Democratic Party of Evanston.

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Twitter: @isabellesarraf

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