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Uniting to ensure everyone counts in our democracy

Much at stake in 2020 Census

Beth Huang & Alexie Torres

In 1903, Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin, a lifelong Bostonian and suffragist who fought slavery, was turned away from the General Federation of Women’s Clubs meeting because she was black. During her life as a trailblazer for rights for women and African Americans, Ruffin organized an advocacy group for black women called the Woman’s Era Club, integrated the New England Woman’s Club, and was a charter member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. When Ruffin died in her home on St. Botolph Street in Boston in 1924, the suffragist movement had won the right to vote for white women, but black citizens were left behind.

This month, we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the ratification of women’s suffrage in Massachusetts on June 25, 1919. Social movements for women’s suffrage and civil rights organized ordinary people to win voting rights in the 20th century. This anniversary is a powerful reminder that expanding voting rights creates a more diverse electorate, and that our democracy is strongest when everyone counts.

Unfortunately, there is a concerted attempt to roll back the 20th-century social movement victories to expand the electorate. The potential addition of a question about citizenship to the 2020 Census is part of this effort to erase immigrants, communities of color and low-income people from our democracy. Records from deceased Republican political strategist Thomas B. Hofeller show that the proposal to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census is to gather the necessary data to use “citizen voting age population” as the metric for drawing political lines instead of the full population in redistricting. If this narrow and self-serving vision for representation were implemented, immigrant communities, children, incarcerated people and other people who cannot vote would go without political representation.

The U.S. Supreme Court will decide the fate of the citizenship question later this month. With or without the citizenship question, advocates for an equitable and accurate count in the 2020 Census still face an uphill battle against a national climate of fear and distrust. The Census Bureau’s own analysis found that 0adding the citizenship question would increase 2020 Census cost by $121 million and cause a 2.2 percentage point drop in self-response. The addition of a citizenship question is a clear attempt to depress participation in the 2020 Census. This will leave marginalized communities without adequate resources for the next decade, skew data that researchers use every day and undermine the foundations for representational democracy.

Women need an accurate count for political rights and economic security. An undercount in the 2020 census disproportionately impacts low-income women, children and families. Households headed by single mothers are one of many historically undercounted constituencies in every decennial census. An undercount will skew the baseline for providing vital programs like Head Start, WIC, SNAP, and MassHealth. The Census determines a large portion of funding for education and healthcare, two sectors that disproportionately employ women workers.

Just like the movements for women’s suffrage of the 19th and early 20th century and the civil rights struggle of the 1960s, we can stand together to ensure that everyone counts in our democracy. Our past struggles haven’t included everyone, and we need to strive to make sure that everyone counts. Regardless of the Supreme Court’s decision, we urge everyone to participate in our democracy by filling out the 2020 Census to ensure our communities get their fair share of resources and political representation.

Our democracy is strongest when we unite to ensure that everyone counts in our political system. Let’s live up to the legacies of the suffragettes, the civil rights leaders, and all those who struggled for a more inclusive democracy. We must come together for an accurate census in 2020 and equitable redistricting in 2021.

Beth Huang is executive director of the Massachusetts Voter Table. Alexi Torres is executive director of the Access Strategies Fund. 

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