Citizen participation in 2020: Voting and being counted in the census

The Wisconsin Idea commits UW-Madison to being involved in our community, our state and our nation. One way to fulfill that commitment on the educational side of our mission is to prepare our graduates for a life of civic engagement as active and involved citizens.

This is an election year, and there are extensive efforts here on campus to ensure students and employees have the information available to exercise their right to vote. But this year we have another important way to participate as citizens:  being part of the 2020 U.S. Census.

I have a deep connection to the census.  Although most of my career has been spent in academia, I have had several opportunities to work in the federal government, taking leave from campus. Ten years ago, I was the Under Secretary for Economic Affairs in the U.S. Department of Commerce, which meant I was overseeing the U.S. Census Bureau during the 2010 Census.

Being involved with the 2010 Census was in some ways one of the most fascinating projects I’ve ever worked on.  Every 10 years, the census is the largest domestic deployment of people and activities ever conducted.  In the space of about 9 months in 2010 we hired, trained, put to work, and decommissioned over 600,000 Census workers. Imagine the work required to gather information on every household in America … not 90% or even 99%, but 100%. Over that year, I learned a great deal about large event management, rapid response to emerging problems, outreach to very diverse communities, and much more.

Why is the decennial census so important? It is a constitutionally mandated count of everyone living in the United States, which is necessary for apportioning seats in federal and state government. Any democracy needs an accurate population count if it is to have representative government. But the census matters for much more. Census data is used to determine how much Madison and Dane County will receive in federal funds for schools, health facilities, transportation and local programs. Local governments use it to forecast demand for schools and medical facilities. Private firms use it to determine where they are going to site their next restaurant, store or manufacturing facility. And at UW–Madison, our researchers use this data in multiple ways to study demographic and economic trends.

Census forms will begin arriving at individual households in mid-March with mailed invitations to respond online, by phone or by mail. Students in campus residence halls will receive their forms in early April.

The count is based on where you live on April 1, 2020, so most UW–Madison students are counted at their campus-area addresses — not at the home of their parent or guardian. This includes international and nonresident students. To get an accurate count of everyone who is using public resources here, we need everyone to participate.

By law, the survey answers are confidential. The census does not share data on identifiable individuals with any other governmental units. It only releases data for aggregate areas or in a way where no individuals can be identified. (For the record, actual census data is released 70 years after the census. This has allowed for fascinating research that tracks individuals and families over time through the decennial census, looking at questions such as the occupational differences between parents and children in the 19th century, or the geographic movement among immigrant families over time after they arrive in the U.S.)

For more information, visit this City of Madison website.  Please be sure to watch for the form and participate in the Census. It’s an important part of our democracy.

Now, back to the issue of voting. Our campus voter information and registration drive will launch on March 6 and kick off registration efforts in advance of the spring presidential primary, which is Tuesday, April 7. The partisan primary for statewide offices falls on Aug. 11 this year.

UW–Madison students are again competing in the nonpartisan Big Ten Voting Challenge, vying against our Big Ten rivals to have the highest voter turnout rates and most improved turnout relative to the Nov. 3 presidential election. We finished with the second-best turnout in the Big Ten in the midterm in November 2018. (The University of Minnesota — otherwise known as the University of Western Scandinavia, an area with notoriously high voting rates — came in first.)  I’m proud of our students at UW–Madison for their engagement. While the earlier primary and state elections won’t count in the competition, the Badgers Vote Coalition is seeking strong turnout and registration in those as well. Information about the registration and voting places can be found here.

With the campaign season in full swing, I know some may be wondering about whether and how political activities can be pursued on our campus. General guidelines for employees and students can be found in this document, while this document provides more specific information about rules for political events and candidate visits, which generally can be accommodated with planning and the assistance of our staff.

If you have specific questions, please email and we’ll be sure to answer.

I encourage every member of our campus community to be engaged and to participate in these essential functions of our democracy.