WASHINGTON, D.C. – Prince George’s County as well as two county residents joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Prince George’s branch of the NAACP in filing a lawsuit against the federal government on March 28. The suit alleges the federal Census Bureau is inadequately prepared to conduct the 2020 Census, which will result in the undercounting of communities of color.
According to the suit, the United States government is failing to fulfill its constitutionally-mandated duty to conduct a fair and accurate census.
Article 1, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution prescribes that the government conduct an enumeration of the population once every 10 years. The census has historically undercounted communities of color.
“We must not be undercounted again like we have been over the past 30 years,” said Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker, III. “A vast majority of the residents of Prince George’s County are members of this nation’s historically disenfranchised populations. We cannot let this continue in 2018, 2020, or any year moving forward. This lawsuit will help protect future generations of systemic under-resourcing from our federal government.”
Prince George’s has a predominately African American population and the most undercounted county in Maryland. It is among the top 10 undercounted national large jurisdictions. The county was undercounted by 2.3 percent during the 2010 Census.
The plaintiffs allege multiple factors may lead to the continued under-counting of African Americans and other people of color. These causes include lack of leadership in the Census Bureau, underfunding the bureau, moving the census online and not proposing adequate community outreach to contact communities that are typically undercounted.
“The government’s preparation for the 2020 Census are so extraordinarily deficient that they are in violation of its constitutional duty. There has been no leadership of the Census Bureau for almost a year,” said Charlotte Schwartz, a law student intern with Yale Law School’s Rule of Law Clinic, which represents the plaintiffs. “The government has failed to protect the first-ever digital census from Russian and other cyber-security threats.”
The lawsuit was filed with the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland and names President Donald Trump, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, Acting Director of the Census Bureau Ron Jarmin, the Census Bureau and the United States as defendants.
Brad Berry, General Counsel for the NAACP, said the plaintiffs are “seeking a declaration from the court that the Census Bureau’s plans and preparations for the 2020 Census are insufficient to satisfy constitutional requirements. We’re also seeking injunctive relief requiring the government to take the stance necessary to conduct a fair and accurate census.”
He described the case as “the first of its kind” because “we’re seeking injunctive relief in advance of the census to require the Census Bureau to avoid measures that are likely to increase the historical undercount of communities of color and to advance measures that are likely to reduce the historical undercount.”
If the government has insufficient or incorrect data regarding the residents of particular regions, there may be far-reaching consequences for that area. For instance, undercounting can result in underfunding from the federal government for needs such as roads, schools, hospitals and federal programs.
“The government knows that these deficiencies disproportionately impact people of color who are already vulnerable to being undercounted,” Schwartz said. “An undercounted community is an undervalued community. When the government fails to accurately count people of color, their votes are diluted and their communities are deprived of critical federal funds.”
Baker said it is telling that even Prince George’s County, which houses the Census Bureau, borders Washington, D.C., and is one of the wealthiest African American counties in the country remains undercounted.
“We’re one of the wealthiest, if not the wealthiest, majority African American counties in the United States, and yet we are woefully undercounted,” Baker said. “That means the loss of federal funds, loss of opportunities…I am proud that the county stands here, not just representing itself, but as an example of the undercounting that is going on across this nation.”
Baker said the county has lost an estimated $200 million in federal dollars due to the undercount.
“So if it’s happening in one of the wealthiest communities of color in the United States, imagine what is happening when those communities are challenged,” Baker said.
H. Elizabeth Johnson is joining the suit as a home-owner and long-time resident of Prince George’s County. She said the census deeply impacts the daily lives of all residents, even if they do not realize it.
“As an individual home-owner, it’s impacted me because I travel over the roads, I travel over the bridges,” Johnson said. “Those are the kinds of things that disenchant me, because when the storms come, and my road doesn’t get cleaned as quickly as it should be…so if you don’t have the money, you can’t make the changes.”
Furthermore, data collected through the census is used to inform officials who redraw district lines. The next redistricting will take place following the 2020 Census.
“When the Census Bureau undercounts my community, we lose political power,” said Bob Ross, president of the Prince George’s County NAACP.
Berry said he has heard from other organizations interested in supporting the lawsuit.
These organizations could join the lawsuit as plaintiffs, file amicus curiae or engage in advocacy in Washington, D.C.
The plaintiffs intended to file the lawsuit even before the Trump administration announced their intention to include a question regarding citizenship status on the 2020 Census. Opponents to that proposition contend it could have a chilling effect on undocumented as well as documented immigrants. The state of California has filed a lawsuit contesting the constitutionality of the citizenship question.