Ensuring Language Access for Minority Voters Relies on a Fair and Accurate Census

Terry Ao Minnis
April 17, 2018

​We are a mere two years out from “Census Day” 2020 — April 1, 2020 — and we need all hands on deck to ensure a fair and accurate census. The census is paramount for a multitude of reasons — the data are used to make critical decisions in distributing over $600 billion annually in federal spending, developing legislation, making business decisions, and for federal, state, and local planning. On a more foundational level, the census is a pillar of our democracy. Census data are used to appropriate seats for the U.S. House and in turn, the Presidential electoral college, and in redistricting to redraw lines. The Census has major implications for our federal elections and voter confidence as it is integral to demonstrating the system is fair and representative. It is also vital to language minority voters and their active and meaningful civic engagement.

​While the census strives to get a fair and accurate count of everyone in the country, the reality is that some are missed in census after census. Now, if different communities are missed equally, then the resulting census would still be fair, if not as accurate. Unfortunately, decade after decade we have seen a persistent, disproportionate undercount of certain population groups, including people of color, young children, and renters. Thus, when there is a differential undercount in communities of color, voters of color are further marginalized. Rights are unrecognized and unrealized when people are undercounted in these communities.

​Data from the American Community Survey (ACS) are used to make Section 203 determinations under the Voting Rights Act every five years. It dictates which jurisdictions are required to provide language assistance during the voting process. The ACS – an ongoing survey that provides vital socio-economic characteristics on a yearly basis about our nation and its people – allows us to know more about topics including: jobs and occupations, educational attainment, veterans, language ability, and whether people own or rent their homes. While the ACS is conducted separately from the decennial census, an unfair and inaccurate census will negatively skew the ACS. Because the ACS is sent to a sampling of households, the data collected uses a weighting methodology that forces consistency of ACS estimates with official population estimates by age, sex, race, and Hispanic origin. The population estimates are based on the most recent decennial population results (currently, the 2010 census) updated with annual changes in births, deaths, domestic and international migration.

​Since there is a higher risk of an undercount in immigrant and limited English proficient communities, as indicated in the Census Bureau’s own research, language minority communities are more likely to refuse to participate. This lower participation by language minorities could mean missed jurisdictions for Section 203 coverage that should be covered throughout the decade. During the most recent determinations in 2016, a total of 263 political subdivisions nationwide are now covered by Section 203, with a total of 214 political subdivisions in 26 states providing assistance in Spanish, 15 political subdivisions of Alaska providing assistance in an Alaska Native language, 35 political subdivisions in nine states providing assistance in an American Indian language, and 27 political subdivisions in 12 states providing assistance in an Asian language. Inaccurate census data would result in less language assistance across the nation.

Census data are also important for jurisdictions working to comply with their Section 203 obligations. For example, Census data are often one factor taken into consideration in making the determination of the language for written assistance, as well as the languages for oral assistance at the polls. Additionally, jurisdictions can target their language assistance. For example, translated materials and bilingual poll workers can be placed in those polling locations that serve covered language minority voters as opposed to all polling locations. Jurisdictions can look to census data to inform their planning to determine which polling locations should offer language assistance.

​Census data are also important for jurisdictions looking to provide voluntary language assistance to their constituents. For example, Fairfax County, VA decided to voluntarily provide language assistance in Korean in addition to their Section 203 obligations under Spanish and Vietnamese. Recognizing that the county has a growing Korean population, the county looked to Census data which indicated that approximately 35,000 of the million or so county residents spoke Korean at home, with about 55 percent of them not speaking English very well, for confirmation that this was a community that had a significant need for language assistance.

​The Census Bureau continues to face several challenges this decade that have put a fair and accurate census at risk, including funding shortfalls for virtually the entire decade. These funding shortfalls have led the Census Bureau to make tough decisions, like cancelling all on-site field tests in 2017 and curtailing its End-to-End Test in 2018. While the decades-long reduced funding has had consequences, both Congress and the Administration — recognizing the deficiencies in funding to date and the challenges facing the Census — have taken steps to move the Census Bureau in the right direction. Congress recently boosted Census Bureau funding in the recent Fiscal Year 2018 omnibus spending bill, nearly doubling the 2017 funding level and providing $1.13 billion more than the administration’s adjusted request for 2018. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross stated that “an efficient 2020 Census that provides a full, fair and accurate count has been one of [his] highest priorities since being confirmed,” in asking for an increase in funding for the 2020 Census. It is imperative that the 2020 Census gets back on track as an inaccurate count weakens our democracy with just two years to finalize and implement the decennial census. For all these reasons, a fair and accurate census is important for language minority voters and for those who work to protect their voting rights. We can all pitch in and take steps to ensure everyone gets counted when Census Day 2020 arrives!

​Terry Ao Minnis is a Senior Fellow and Consultant at the Democracy Fund where she advises staff on emerging needs and opportunities to improve voting for all—specifically for those who face unique challenges under our current system. Terry currently serves as the Director of the Census and Voting programs for Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAJC), and co-chairs the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights’ Census Task Force. She received her Juris Doctor, cum laude, from American University Washington College of Law and her Bachelor’s degree in economics at the University of Chicago.

​Follow Terry on Twitter @Tao_Minnis.