Lack Of Internet Access Threatens 2020 Census Success And The Future Latino Voting Power
from the digital-divide-matters dept
American elections are threatened by more than just Russian hacking; the lack of internet access for the growing Latino population undermines our democracy thanks to a shift to online counting for the 2020 census.
Russian agents have and can again hack algorithms and voting systems — but it matters little in the grand scheme of things if Latinos (the largest minority group in the U.S.) are blocked from participating in the election process before they even get to the voting booth. Without home internet access, the online 2020 census will be another modern civic duty millions of American Latinos won’t have the luxury of participating in, and Congress needs to do something about it.
In 2015, 44 percent of Latinos did not have a broadband connection at home. Connecting to the internet is essential to participate in the 21st century economy. Without internet access, Latinos are shut out from many government benefits and responsibilities — including the 2020 census. With so many Latinos on the wrong side of the digital divide, the census moving online could cause a domino effect for policies that rely heavily on census data — like drawing voting districts.
Moving the 2020 census online will make it harder to count Latinos, who have been undercounted in the U.S. census for decades. Particularly, the Census Bureau reports that 1.5 percent of the Latino population was undercounted in 2010. The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights cites barriers such as language, poverty, education, and immigrant status as continuing causes to the undercount of Latinos.
To be sure, those who cannot self-report online will have a paper option similar to the paper options of past censuses. However, the Census Bureau will no longer be conducting door-to-door surveying en mass, and will rely heavily on online marketing. The paper option alone will not be an adequate replacement for those without broadband so long as the Bureau also eliminates its door to door survey — a necessary component to ensure more accurate counts.
It is also true that the Bureau plans to make the 2020 census form available on mobile devices. However, this is not an equivalent option for those who are smartphone reliant. Not to mention smartphone data plans can be extremely limiting and are often the first thing to go in a time of financial hardship. At least 23 percent of smartphone owners report cancelling or suspending their service because of financial restraint.
The online shift in the 2020 census is particularly troubling for a population with a history of census problems. Although there was a one-time “Mexican” option on the 1930 census, the U.S. didn’t make its first real attempt to measure the Latino population until the 1970 census. It wasn’t until the 2000 census that the U.S. even started using the term “Latino.” Before this, mix-ups or exclusive terminology made tracing data from decade to decade problematic.
To worsen matters, the Census Bureau is making this drastic change based on inaccurate, or missing, data on exactly who has internet access — and who remains unconnected. A lack of Congressional funds and problematic methodologies have slowed processes and produced over-exaggerated maps. Where connection is available, it’s worthless if a household doesn’t have a computer or (in the very least) a mobile device to utilize that connection. Even more troublesome is when families can’t afford to connect; a growing familiarity as cost remains the number one barrier to broadband adoption.
With 21.9 percent of the Latino population in the U.S. living in poverty, more needs to be done to address the digital divide — both where broadband is already deployed and where it isn’t yet. Closing the digital divide starts with preserving and expanding programs like Lifeline (an FCC program that provides a subsidy for low-income families to access communications services), to expanding municipal broadband, and to encouraging competition in existing broadband markets — all things Trump’s FCC is actively working to gut.
Despite showing up to the voting booth for President Obama in 2008, Latinos face trouble with voting. If undercounted, Latino voting power will be diminished even more by efforts to gerrymander congressional districts or concentrate Latinos into one or two small districts. Solving these voting rights issues is not likely before the 2020 census, but an undercount of the Latino population due to the digital divide certainly will worsen matters.
As the 2020 census goes online for the first time, the digital divide is a threat to the future voting power of Latinos and other unconnected communities, including disconnected urban areas as well as rural America. One thing is for sure, we will continue to see an undercount and underestimation in political districting if large swaths of Americans can’t effectively participate in the new census. The digital divide’s impact on the 2020 census poses a significant problem that Congress should be invested in solving now instead of when it’s too late.
Daiquiri Ryan is Policy Counsel for the National Hispanic Media Coalition (NHMC)