by Rich Bartholomew

 

The Palm Beach County League started to engage on the topic of the 2020 Census in the summer of 2018. Although few people realized it, the “infrastructure” activity for the 2020 count was well underway, not only at the federal level but also by local and state governments. The national associations of state and local governments, such as the Conference of State Legislatures and the League of Cities, were sending detailed recommendations to their member jurisdictions to prepare for the census. Government “insiders” knew just how much was at stake in terms of political representation and potential federal funding. 

The National Association of State Budget Officers was getting special briefings from scholars at George Washington University, who have built data displays showing how major federal programs distribute census-related federal funds to each state. Florida received more than $44 billion in 2016. That number will move past $50 billion in the 2020s. Much more $30,000 will come to Florida in the coming decade for each person counted in 2020.

PBC League leaders, such as Nancy Cohen and Judge Ira J. Raab, held census impact discussions with the Voting Rights Coalition (VRC). They decided to set up a special committee inside the special committee of our local league. Judge Raab named it the Census Count Committee (CCC) to be consistent with the Complete Count Committees (CCC’s) being designated across Palm Beach County, Florida and the rest of the state and the nation. Soon after the 2018 election, Rich Bartholomew agreed to lead our CCC, along with the Judge and Jay Zukerman.

In December of 2019, Rich addressed the legislative delegation about the critical importance of the Census for county and state. State legislation was proposed and introduced by Senator Bobby Powell in Tallahassee. CCC members reached out to other interested groups, elected officials and local governments. Judge Raab and the LWV became a charter member of the new PB County CCC. The Census designated us as an official Census Partner.

Meetings with Census Bureau Partnership Representatives started early in 2019. New and current PBC League members were recruited for the CCC. The Committee met monthly in the winter and spring of 2019. Census representatives provided information. Initial outreach materials were produced. The CCC worked closely with League President Ken Thomas. Karen Wilkerson became the link to the State League’s census effort. Slide presentations were developed and tested at our Young Leaguers gatherings.

Our proposed legislation was not adopted at the State Capitol, in spite of the successful track record achieved by a State CCC in 2010. It became clear that grassroots and nonprofit efforts were going to be needed to overcome the lack of State leadership for the 2020 Census. Florida has to count large numbers of hard-to-count populations, such as minorities, young children, rural residents and immigrants. The state also contains many seasonal residents and senior citizens unfamiliar with the Census and its new digital format. The Census Bureau had set a target of 65% of the population responding by electronic means in 2020.

 

Over the summer of 2019, slide presentations and materials were further developed and our work became more intertwined with the State LWV. As the fall months proceeded, the CCC trained its members in the facts and obstacles facing the Census.  The hard-to-count population groups came into clearer focus. The Bureau Partnership staff (Angela Johnson, Pedro Guillarte, and Sandy Goodman) came to our meetings and added to our understanding of the Census process and policies. The PBC business community connected with us and set up presentations in 2020.

“Key points included” 

  • Few Florida residents knew that this was going to be a digital Census, setting out the educational challenge for the League. 
  • The amount of federal funding connected to the Census kept moving upward, from a projected $1,600 per person counted to well over $3,000 per person, per year. 
  • Residents needed to understand a lot more about the strong connection between health and education funding and the Count.
  • Floridians understood that the number of Congressional seats will be determined by the Census. But they needed to be reminded that all district lines will change in cities, counties and school districts. Our Electoral College clout is based on the number of congressional districts. 
  • Most Florida communities are organized around homeowners’ associations and rental properties. Communication at that level became critical.
  • The “Citizenship Question” controversy has had a major impact in frightening immigrant communities, even though the Supreme Court removed it from the survey. The chilling effect was clear. With Florida’s major immigrant populations, the danger of a big undercount loomed.
  • Americans have learned to be wary of digital scams and data theft. Many “civic-minded” people worried about the concept of a “digital Census.” Ways needed to be found to reassure them that their Census response would be safe. Census fraud efforts in Florida and other states were already underway by December. 

 

All these factors informed our handout materials and presentations. In December, we applied for and got an outreach grant of $11,900 from Florida Counts. The PBCLWV had already given the CCC $2,000 in its budget for this priority subject. One committee member made a 50% matching grant to that resource. We began to print more than 50,000 pieces of outreach materials in three languages. Our LWV blue-and-white Census bookmarks proved very popular for distribution at every type of meeting and public event.

With the turn of the New Year, we started aggressive in-person outreach and public presentations. In close cooperation with Corinna Robinson from the Speakers Bureau, the 2020 Census message reached thousands of audience members in every part of the county. We targeted and spoke with elected officials at all government levels. They echoed our information and distributed LWV materials. 

Karen Wilkerson trained League members from around the state. Our CCC members joined their local municipal CCC’s. The video of our Census Cool Topic in January reached thousands of League members around Florida. Committee members personally undertook outreach activities at all manner of community gatherings, especially homeowner and activist events. Kathy Smith, Linda Prior, Linda Geller Schwartz, Jane Bruno, Ancy Louis, Sheila Calderon, Charles Oesterle, Lucy Montague, Suzanne Kelly, Pat Doman, Mary Anne Range, Nancy Cohen, Rebecca Cohen, Lynn Hankin, Pam Maldonado, Gail Schwenk, Jan Courte, Marsh Berger, Michael Raab and Susan LaDuca all made valuable contributions to the CCC’s activities. LWV census outreach efforts were peaking in March, when the coronavirus suddenly altered the American civic landscape. Face-to-face Census promotion opportunities dried up.

As a result, the CCC shifted over to a digital outreach approach. We distributed materials to churches and other local groups and to areas with a large number of Creole- and Spanish such as Lake Worth Beach. The PBC LWV robocalled all our members, asking them to contact others in support of the Census. We have continued to cooperate with the State LWV, Leadership Palm Beach County and local governments.

President Thomas and Ken Horkavy produced a video Public Service Announcement and promoted it on the Internet. It has reached more than 132,000 people as of this writing.

Virginia Savietto, an aide to County Commissioner Greg Weiss, joined the CCC and the LWV because of her commitment to advance the Census. Among many other Census support activities, she has worked with local Spanish language radio stations to help us buy PSA’s and on-air interviews through July. 

The CCC is participating in a Census texting project sponsored by Florida Counts, our grant source. We hope to do more digital Census outreach. We are looking for ways to hand out our remaining English language Census bookmarks. 

We remain open to other practical initiatives that our members and other Census Partners may suggest or simply do themselves.