If You Think Voting Is Important, Try The Census

Published in Forbes | Op-ed on

At James Madison University, we are involving students as leaders in census outreach and education efforts.

Dr. Carah Ong Whaley is Associate Director of the James Madison Center for Civic Engagement at James Madison University where she works in partnership with students, faculty, staff and community partners like the ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge to embed civic learning and democratic engagement across campus through curricular and co-curricular programming. Dr. Whaley is also a member of Virginia’s Complete Count Commission.

Do you care about money and power? 

That’s a question we ask people daily because it’s what the decennial census is all about. 

For some, it may be difficult to see the direct material benefit of the census, but it’s the invisible hand guiding the American political and economic system. From how people are represented in government to how businesses decide where to locate, census data undergird important decisions which affect our everyday lives. 

In advocating for the first census in 1790 before Congress, James Madison said decision-makers should have a good understanding of who is in the population in order for policies to best reflect the needs of different segments of society and industries. Along with other populations including young children, rural communities and immigrants, college and university students are considered among historically underrepresented groups in the census. For 2020, the Urban Institute calculated the already troubled 2020 Census could undercount the U.S. population by 1.22% nationally and as much as 2% in states like California and Texas. Without an accurate count, we won’t know the true make-up of our population — whether it’s children, the elderly, immigrants or other underserved members of our society — nor will we have the knowledge, resources or capacity to serve them. 

Mandated by the U.S. Constitution, the census is the basis for political representation because the population count determines how congressional seats are allocated among the states and how legislative district lines are drawn. Census-derived data also determines how federal funds are allocated to states and local communities. A November 2019 report by the George Washington University Institute of Public Policy found that in Fiscal Year (FY) 2017, 316 federal spending programs relied on 2010 Census-derived data to distribute $1.504 trillion to state and local governments, nonprofits, businesses, and households across the nation. This accounted for 7.8% of Gross Domestic Product in FY2017. Other research shows that for each person not counted, a locality will lose out on $2,000 per year for a total of $20,000 over a decade. This means those who have the most to lose will lose the most because they will not be counted.

Like work to grow voters, the census presents an opportunity to educate and engage students in the critical efforts to build a more just and inclusive democracy because the census will impact who and how individuals are represented at every level of government. The census is also a chance to build power for these same communities who have been traditionally left out of political and decision-making processes. 

The 2020 Census will be a colossal undertaking with a number of challenges, especially given budget shortfalls and threats posed by misinformation, disinformation and propaganda. But there’s a silver lining to these challenges: students have a chance to develop and practice civic knowledge, skills and values. At James Madison University, we are involving students as leaders in census outreach and education efforts. We are working with faculty, administrators, state and local government officials, community organizations, and the Census Bureau on joint initiatives to reach several hard-to-count populations in our region. The keys to the success of these efforts are building diverse and inclusive coalitions which can leverage the power of trusted individuals and their networks to reach traditionally underrepresented populations and help overcome motivational and informational barriers to completing the census.  

Students are counted where they reside and spend most of their time as of April 1, 2020, thus the majority of students will be counted in their college community. Because of this, colleges and universities have a special responsibility to the communities in which we are situated to ensure a complete count. And we can leverage institutional power to do so.

Best practices for high impact include: 

  • a global reminder from the Registrar to fill out the 2020 census when students register for Fall 2020 courses or check in for May graduation
  • classroom visits to educate on why the census matters and allowing time to complete the census online
  • global reminders in the first two weeks of April 2020 to complete the census using campus instructional tools (Collab, Canvas, Moodle, Blackboard, etc.)

In addition, ads in campus and city buses and social media campaigns can reach students and other community members. Campuses can also work with Off-Campus Life offices to ask housing complexes and landlords to remind students to complete the census when they turn in their rent in March and April.  For other ideas and toolkits, visit our website

We believe students can and should be fully represented, and fully participate, not only in the census, but more broadly in democratic life. Even if they don’t have to fill out the census themselves, they can help educate others about why it matters, and help family members and friends fill it out. Campuses should give students the opportunity to come up with their own ideas and strategies, and give students the resources to implement them. This effort requires many different forms of communication, and our students can help to identify and implement a variety of strategies to reach their peers and other hard-to-count communities. 

The most important things students can learn is that their voice matters and that they can make a difference in their communities and in our democracy by completing the census. By leading get-out-the-count initiatives — whether on campus or in surrounding communities — students can develop a sense of agency that can make a meaningful contribution to strengthening democracy.