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EDITORIAL: An early take on what Illinois has at stake with the 2020 Census

This March 23, 2018, file photo shows an envelope containing a 2018 census letter mailed to a U.S. resident as part of the nation's only test run of the 2020 Census. (AP Photo/Michelle R. Smith, File)

The nation has done just one test run of the 2020 Census. This 2018 file photo shows an envelope containing a census letter mailed to a U.S. resident as part of the test run. | AP File Photo/Michelle R. Smith

The 2020 Census is a year down the road, but it’s not too early to point out how much is at stake for Illinois.

For one, the billions of federal dollars that flow to our state every year — for road construction projects, crime-victim assistance, schools and more — are based on population data gathered in the decennial Census.

Political representation could be in jeopardy, too. If the much-discussed “Illinois exodus” turns out to be large enough, Illinois will lose seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.

“Since 1950, Illinois has lost one congressional seat in every census cycle,” said Anita Banerji of Forefront, a not-for-profit that is leading a coalition focused on outreach to boost Census participation. “We most likely will lose one [seat] because of population loss. What we’re trying to do is roll up our sleeves and work together so we don’t lose a second.”

Clearly, counting every resident next year is a must. Our cash-strapped state needs every dollar it can get. Every Illinois resident who is not counted costs us $18,000 in federal funds — $1,800 every year for 10 years — until the next Census, one expert told us.

The Illinois Complete Count Commission, charged with making sure the state avoids an undercount, is asking for $25 million in state funds for outreach, especially to groups the Census Bureau considers “hard to count,” like rural residents and minorities. Next year’s Census will be conducted online for the first time, and that adds to the challenge. More than 867,000 Illinois households don’t have internet access, or have dial-up access only.

That $25 million sounds like a wise investment to us. Lawmakers can do their part by moving swiftly to pass SB 1408 and get money flowing.

There’s another elephant in the room that threatens to impact Illinois, home to at least 1.8 million immigrants: The controversial citizenship question that President Donald Trump’s commerce secretary, Wilbur Ross, has added to the Census. The question asks, “Is this person a citizen of the United States?”

Let’s be clear: The U.S. Constitution mandates that “all persons” be counted in the Census so that seats in Congress can be apportioned properly. Government should make that as efficient and accurate as possible, instead of throwing up roadblocks against the advice of census scientific experts.

In fact, the Census Bureau scrapped a citizenship question with the 1960 Census. The rationale, in part, was that it would deter immigrants from responding.

We don’t doubt that would happen this time around, as activists have warned, given the president’s relentless vilifying of immigrants and his administration’s desire to curb the political power of any group that skews toward Democrats.

Just as Census officials said “no” to a citizenship question decades ago, we’re saying “no” now. We don’t buy the administration’s argument that it needs extensive citizenship data, more than is already collected in smaller Census surveys, to enforce voting rights.

Two federal judges saw through the argument too, and they’ve already ruled against the Trump administration in lawsuits filed by states, cities and interest groups to block the question. One judge slammed Ross, saying voting rights enforcement clearly wasn’t the “real reason” for the question, and called Ross’ decision “arbitrary and capricious.” The second judge ruled that Ross, who couldn’t find anyone in the Census Bureau to approve his plan, went on a “cynical search to find some reason, any reason” to justify his move.

The ongoing legal battle will reach the Supreme Court next month, with oral arguments in one of the lawsuits. A ruling is expected in June.

“We are optimistic that the question will come off, and that the Supreme Court will see that the Census is too important and uphold the district court decisions,” Griselda Vega Samuel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, told us. “Nonetheless, we recognize that the Trump administration is doing everything it can to discourage participation, so we are working to offset that.”

Let’s all hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.

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