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Counting Californians and Holding Elections in a Pandemic

Lori Pottinger April 1, 2020
Photo of tract housing in California

Today is Census Day, the day to count everyone living in the country in 2020. It’s not the deadline for responses—you have until August 14 to complete your census form—just the “anchor day” for counting those living in your household. We talked to California Secretary of State Alex Padilla about the challenges the COVID-19 pandemic brings to counting Californians—and for holding elections in November.

Photo - Alex PadillaPPIC: What challenges does the pandemic bring to conducting the census?

ALEX PADILLA: Ensuring a fair and accurate count is tough under normal circumstances, and it’s made more challenging by this global health pandemic. A lot of the state and local strategies for engaging the public on the census have had to be modified or replaced with ones that are more effective when people are staying at home. The good news is, this is the first time it’s been possible to do the census online, as well as by phone or paper. We’re seeing people get more creative at staying in touch while keeping their distance, whether through video chats with their coworkers or using teleconferencing to stay in touch with family and friends. We can also use these methods to remind everyone to do the census.

It’s really important to remember that participation in the census is how we ensure our communities receive their fair share of federal dollars for critical needs such as public health, education, public safety, housing, and infrastructure. This message is really striking a chord right now.

PPIC: As they shelter in place, what can Californians do to help ensure an accurate census count?

AP: Every Californian should participate in the census, but also remind people they’re in touch with to do so. Assuring a complete and fair count depends on everyone doing the census. It’s not just a count of adults or voters or citizens; it’s for everybody living here.

California has an especially high number of hard-to-count populations—for example, communities of color, young people, and immigrant families and communities. More than 70% of Californians fit into a hard-to-count category. It already takes extra effort to ensure participation by these groups. The pandemic is not making the job any easier—at a time when the job is more important than ever for ensuring the state gets its share of federal funding for critical needs over the next decade.

Based on the prior census 10 years ago, California’s most undercounted population were kids under five years old. My youngest just turned five, and especially now with all the kids at home, it’s hard to imagine forgetting to include him as he’s the loudest member of our household! Today, kids who weren’t counted in 2010 are now teens who’ve been in school for years, but their schools haven’t been getting their full share of federal education dollars. It’s a very tangible way to think about it, and it shows the importance of the census for our quality of life.

There are many options for participating in the census. Go online or call in today. Once you’ve submitted your information, help us by spreading the word with neighbors you’re checking in on and friends and family.

PPIC: Talk about the administration of the upcoming election.

AP: To put it in context, we should recognize that throughout the nation’s history, Americans have gone to the polls—in times of war, during the Great Depression, and even during the deadly 1918 flu pandemic. So it’s not a matter of if or when we’ll hold the election. We have a date: it’s Tuesday, November 3. It’s a matter of how we hold the election in a way that is accessible, secure, and healthy for everyone—voters, elections personnel, poll workers. Many things California has championed to get more people voting really make a lot of sense in an era of public distancing. You can register to vote online. Voting by mail and in-person early voting are good ways to avoid crowds. We’re diligently working on expanding those opportunities.

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