Pennsylvania, it’s time for some blunt talk. Not enough of us are doing our part to get counted in the 2020 Census.
The numbers don’t lie. Out of 50 states, Pennsylvania ranks 21st for the number of households responding to the census (tied with California). Just 54.6 percent have responded as of Saturday. Compare that to the 63.9 percent response rate in Minnesota, or the 61.1 percent in Iowa.
There are 3,203 counties in the United States (including its major territories). Scrolling down the ranking of county response rates on Sunday afternoon, I had to go all the way to No. 185 to find the highest-ranked Pennsylvania counties — a tie between Montgomery and Bucks, with each reporting a 63.7 percent response rate. Chester and Lancaster were tied at 197, with 63.4 percent.
The best county in the country? That’s Los Alamos in New Mexico, with 73.8 percent.
The worst performing county in Pennsylvania is Forest, where just 15.8 percent of households have responded as of Saturday. BTW, that makes Forest 3,001st among all 3,203 counties. Not. Good. At. All. Next up from Forest is Sullivan County, with 16 percent of households responding.
The census is way behind this year thanks to the coronavirus. Earlier this month, the Census Bureau announced that it’s extending the deadline for data collection until Oct. 31. It doesn’t expect to send final numbers to Congress and the states until April 2021.
Berks County Commissioner Kevin S. Barnhardt leads the Berks Complete Count Committee, and he says the delay is the right call. “Getting an accurate count is more important than getting a quick count. A quick count would be fraught with undercounts,” he told The Reading Eagle.
Still, the challenge facing local officials involved in the census is significant. As the Post-Gazette reported, the Census typically relies heavily on libraries, government offices, nonprofit human services organizations, and booths at community events. With coronavirus halting so much of public life, census leaders at the local level are now trying “to reach people in creative ways: everything from flyers in boxes of distributed food, to social media posts, to phone calls, to reminders to college students in their online lectures.”
In Indiana County, census officials are “utilizing a $5,000 grant made to Downtown Indiana Inc., a nonprofit entity, by the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development, for multiple venues such as Facebook and radio ads, and billboards, including those on Indiana County Transit Authority buses.”
Hard-to-count communities aren’t just in rural counties. This piece in Al Dia notes that Philadelphia Community Access Media (PhillyCAM) produced census videos in seven languages — English, Spanish, Lao, Haitian Creole and the African languages Yoruba, Mandinka, Soninke, Amharic and Fulani — in order to boost the count in Pa.’s largest city.
Writing in LNP, Lancaster County Chief Clerk Lawrence George and Lancaster County Planning Commission official Emma Hamme remind readers that the census can pay off, literally: “Make your own 2020 census video and share it online. Enter the video in the “Get Out The Count Video Prize Challenge” for a chance to win a cash prize.
All the marbles
The census, it bears stressing, is how seats in Congress are allocated among the 50 states, and it’s how legislative, county and city districts are redrawn to reflect changes in population. The delay in reporting final population counts could lead to political chaos in 2022, the Associated Press notes, since “[t]he months-long delay in census data could make a divisive process more complicated, potentially forcing lawmakers into costly special sessions to complete the work or postponing some primary elections.” In a similar piece, The New York Times said “[a] lengthy delay in reporting census figures to the states could throw a wrench into at least some states’ efforts to draw new political maps. Most states have fixed deadlines for approving new maps, some of them written into state constitutions, that could prove hard or impossible to meet if population figures are delayed into the summer, according to Jeffrey M. Wice, a redistricting expert and senior fellow at New York Law School.”
Pennsylvania is already projected to lose one U.S. House seat after the 2020 count is complete, reducing the state’s clout in Congress and in the presidential electoral map. The political fight over how to draw the lines of 17 U.S. House seats and the legislature’s House and Senate districts in the run up to 2022’s gubernatorial election in Pennsylvania could mean we’re in for one ugly fight in the fall of 2021 and potentially stretching into the first half of 2022.
Politics can often be messy because the stakes are so high. The first thing we, as citizens, must do is be counted. If you haven’t completed the census yet, go to pa.gov/census to start the process.
Then it’s up to all of us to pay attention and hold elected officials accountable for carrying out a fair redistricting. — Russ Walker