CASA GRANDE — Although a possible census undercount has been evident ever since news broke that Arizona would not get a 10th Congressional District, Thursday’s official numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau were still surprising. Some cities in Pinal County, such as Casa Grande and Eloy, showed populations much lower than previous estimates, and in the case of the latter, even went down from the 2010 count.
Advocates with the organization Rural Arizona Engagement, which works to promote civic participation, say that the undercount is a product of a political climate that intimidates minorities as well as the pandemic.
“There’s a lot more fear tactics being used than in 2010,” said Community Outreach Coordinator Andrea Varela. “The population doesn’t necessarily trust the government, and so they don’t want any of their information released.”
Varela noted that due to the pandemic, there were literally fewer people to count in the spring of 2020 as many winter residents were not in Arizona at the time.
Several local mayors expressed frustration at lower than expected numbers, and Casa Grande Mayor Craig McFarland said he believed that the census had undercounted numbers for the city. According to the census, Casa Grande’s 2019 estimated population was just over 58,000, but the numbers released Thursday gave the city an official total of near 53,000.
McFarland said that he believed the pandemic was a huge factor and cities that skewed younger might have had less of a discrepancy because of more computer and online literacy.
“I’m not happy about it,” McFarland said of the census. “Either the count was bad or the estimate was bad. I’m not sure the people who said they were going out counting people were actually counting, because everybody was afraid of COVID.”
McFarland said the city would look into possible recourse and review their options, but due to the possible expenses, it might not be feasible to propose a recount.
RAZE Advocacy Director Aris Correa said that questions about citizenship, which had been proposed, not only scare minorities from taking part in the census but dampen civic participation altogether. Correa called out political leaders statewide for not pushing back hard enough against fear-mongering tactics.
“If there’s an undercount, that lessens the impact of a vote,” Correa said. “And that all builds into this long-term effect of apathy.”
According to the census, just over 43% of Casa Grande’s population is Hispanic; Pinal County as a whole has a Hispanic population of over 30%.
Correa said that RAZE participants in the public hearings on redistricting felt that black and brown communities were overall underrepresented. Varela said some reasons for lack of minority inclusion were the disparate locations, the difficulty for working family members to attend the events in-person, poor execution on technical issues and an overall lack of outreach to relevant groups, such as Spanish-speaking media outlets.
As an organization, RAZE will now be looking into how the undercount will affect communities in Pinal County going forward. Varela suggested funding could be a big issue and that minority representation is still a problem. The group plans outreach campaigns to elected officials and to continue discussions with the community on how to improve representation.
“We know an undercount is surprising,” Varela said. “It’s hard to understand and we know it’s hard to see you’re not represented. But we want to work to make sure moving forward this county and state will represent them, and everybody else.”