Using Data to Combat Disenfranchisement

By Betsy Gardner • OCTOBER 1, 2020

“There are many really interesting pieces about how data does or doesn’t drive policy,” says Elana Needle, the Director of the Racial Equity Anchor Collaborative at the Latino civil rights organization UnidosUS. “But the paucity of data and lack of disaggregation is a huge disservice to certain populations. We want to dig into data and how you use data in policymaking, to create a more just and equitable democracy.” Data can both reveal and conceal inequalities, biases, and prejudice, but for Needle and her partner organizations in the Racial Equity Anchor Collaborative, data is being used to drive policy and advocacy, and combat systemic racial inequities.

Jamal Watkins is the Vice President of Civic Engagement at the NAACP, one of the national, multi-racial organizations that make up the Anchor Collaborative, and he acknowledges another benefit to their data-based work: “In a limited resource environment, we have to make sure we’re metrically driven,” said Watkins.

By visualizing, tracking, and sharing data on census responses, voter registration, and voter suppression, the Anchor Collaborative is intent on revealing and repairing the racist power structures that have disenfranchised millions of Americans of color, while best directing their limited funding in a data-driven way.

The Anchor Collaborative’s current work is part of a recent history of using maps for racial activism. Dolores Huerta, the iconic civil rights activist, advocate for immigrant and worker rights, and cofounder of the United Farm Workers, has focused on making maps with communities so they have the data to advocate for change. The Dolores Huerta Foundation members originally drew their own maps to fight for equal sidewalk, streetlight, and sewer investments; now, the group uses GIS tools to identify and dismantle systemic inequities around race and immigration. Data and mapping helps communities tell their story in a way that drives energy and action.

Census Responses 2020:

“There’s a science to telling the story of folks who have not traditionally responded to the census,” says Watkins, “Where do they live and how can we decide how to target those communities?” Undercounting is a problem in every census, and populations that are typically undercounted include very young children, people of color, and immigrants.

The consequences of undercounting include inaccurate, diminished political representation for undercounted populations and a loss of federal funding. “The paucity of data and lack of disaggregation is a huge disservice to certain communities and populations,” says Needle.

In 2018 the NAACP led the Anchor Collaborative to build out a cloud-based GIS data hub for the census. “Our public-facing map of harder-to-count communities layers the data in a different way than most of the other hard-to-count maps; it’s a little more targeted and a little more nuanced,” said Needle.

Making this more nuanced map hasn’t been easy; because the federal government doesn’t track responses by race, the NAACP data team and GIS expert Tony Fairfax need to upload the federal response data and then back-step it into communities by race. This extra step is crucial, since undercounting disproportionately affects all the “overlapping communities of color” the Anchor Collaborative partners work with (according to Needle, these are African American, Latino, American Indian/Alaska Native, and Asian American/ Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander).

The national, multi-racial organizations that make up the Anchor Collaborative know that supporting local, community-embedded organizations magnifies the impact of this work. While acknowledging that the Anchor Collaborative members aren’t GIS experts, Watkins said that they have given local community organizations access to and training on these mapping tools; Esri has also donated over 1,000 free licenses for the local groups. The Anchor Collaborative then uses the same maps to measure local progress and help direct action. “We have a really robust map of what our network looks like and where the holes are, and how that overlays with the communities of color that we’re specifically working with,” said Needle.

 Alaska has the lowest response rate, and responses are coming online for the first time ever in 2020

Faith in Action, one of the Anchor Collaborative members, trains and educates a sprawling network of community and faith-based organizations through their state offices. Genesis Garcia, the Director of Operations at Faith in Florida, is the resident data expert for her region. When she started with Faith in Florida six years ago, she pulled together many different aspects of operations but fell in love with the data. Now, she uses the Anchor Collaborative Census Map to train social justice ministries, clergy, organizers, and lay volunteers across the whole state — and beyond. Given the value created from her efforts to layer data on maps, Faith in Florida has been asked to share with other states that are using this through the Anchor Collaborative.

According to Garcia, there has been a fantastic public reception to the maps. “When you compare a spreadsheet to a visual like this map, it completely transforms the room,” she says, “And it also transforms the conversation. It’s no longer just numbers and a county or precinct name. Now you’re seeing your little dot of a congregation and you can see what’s actually happening in your own backyard.”

The community organizations that are relying on the maps to direct outreach are talking with family and friends, running public information campaigns, hosting limited in-person events, phone banking, and agitating in their communities. Whenever she trains new users, Garcia reminds them, “You want to have a quality conversation, not a quantity conversation.” She trains the ministries and volunteers on how to review the map, conduct that outreach, and then build a data story, but she takes on the back-end data entry work to update the maps.

Many of the harder-to-count communities are not English proficient and translation services are expensive. Census call centers offer assistance in thirteen different languages, but large-scale call centers full of responders aren’t a viable option during the pandemic. Unfortunately, the mailed census documents are only in English or Spanish. And while this is the first census to offer an online option, which is available in multiple languages, many of the harder-to-count communities are not digital natives and/or have unreliable internet access. Additionally, only official federal enumerators can help fill out a census form, not the community volunteers.

Another unexpected issue has emerged as well; the 2020 census-counting efforts had been extended to October 31st due to the pandemic, but the federal government announced in early August that all counting will end September 30th; despite a lawsuit challenging the changed date, it is unlikely that the original timeline will be reinstated. At the time of publication, the Commerce Department gave a new end date of October 5th, although that is being challenged as a violation of the new court order. Experts believe this case will likely go to the Supreme Court.

According to Watkins, trying to switch the dates “has drawn concerns from across the universe of government watchdogs, community stakeholders and politicians alike who worry that the U.S. Census Bureau has become a tool of partisan manipulation. Given COVID-19 and the strain our communities are under — the shortened counting period means more people left out and the game of the haves and the have nots continues. A true disaster for the American people."

The surprise announcement, which eliminates vital census collection time, means that the Anchor Collaborative and their community-based partners will need to become even more agile and rely even more on their data tools.

Voting Registration and Enfranchisement:

The Anchor Collaborative is simultaneously using this map and data hub to direct other racial justice actions. On the national level, they are in the process of pivoting to the 2020 election cycle, focusing on battleground states like Florida, Michigan, and Arizona. Using voter file data, they are building Get Out the Vote campaigns for local hubs that will be tracked and measured in another data universe on the cloud-based system.

For the Anchor Collaborative, voter registration is a logical companion to the census; it all comes down to the disenfranchisement of people of color in America. “When you talk about the landscape of disenfranchisement, the census and voting are two areas where you have the most proficient, most nuanced — at every step of the process — ways to block people of color from accessing any portion of their democracy.” says Needle.

“The system is set up so that everywhere is different,” agrees Watkins, “There're 10,000-plus voting jurisdictions in the United States. So wherever you live can be slightly different.” One of the reasons that the Anchor Collaborative is tackling both of these issues through a data visualization lens is because the disenfranchisement is so nuanced. “Even if it’s a few miles away, each county may have a different rule of when their polling place opens — that can be in the same state, literally within a few miles of each other, so when it comes to the census and other government programs and connectivity, folks are already bogged down with all these different rules,” says Watkins. “So what the geospatial mapping should help us do is simplify. So that a person or group of operatives can point and click, and see ‘in this city, you’re in the county, and here’s what’s happening, here are what the rules are, and here’s what the numbers say.’ We’re hoping that that’s going to continue to be a tool that will help make life easier for folks.”

Of course, even data mapping and extensive outreach can’t fully change the current political realities — realities that, as Watkins points out, are not exclusive to one party or one politician. “Writ large, we would love for it to be a little more structured, so that it’s not so complicated. But there are folks who are ok with it being confusing. Because it keeps people in power, it keeps people in Congress. There’s all types of dynamics, but if you make it too easy for people — then it’s democracy and people are participating, and these folks down the street now have power,” he says. “That’s actually what we’re wrestling with and trying to unpack.”

However, data does still have a role in achieving this goal, particularly in a state like Florida. For Garcia, there is a special focus on returning citizens; in 2018, people with past felony convictions were granted the right to vote, but there have been significant challenges and attempts to suppress these votes in the state. So, using the Anchor Collaborative map, Faith in Florida and other organizations are going to review voter suppression data and ask for personal voting experiences every year. Garcia helped with this data collection during the 2018 midterm elections, and is using that model to collect the data, input it into the Anchor maps, and address these issues at the Florida Legislation.

The data is also being brought to the federal government, thanks to the Anchor Collaborative. “We set up voter suppression hearings that followed [Ohio] Congresswoman Marcia Fudge’s subcommittee on election administration,” said Needle and included “ a story collection portal that collects voter disenfranchisement and voter suppression stories that we submitted to Congress.”

These are large, interconnected issues that the Anchor Collaborative is trying to correct. Thankfully, they can use data to reach out and help Americans of color fight disenfranchisement, while using mapping to expose the inequities that have been calcified into current practices. The Collaborative’s data hub has “created that road map, from making sure that you and your household are counted, to — if you’re able to and eligible — to register to vote as well.” says Garcia “Then ultimately, your voice will be not only counted but heard when you show up to the polls to vote.


Want to learn more? Listen to Elana Needle on the accompanying Data-Smart City Pod, hosted by Professor Steve Goldsmith.

About the Author

Betsy Gardner

Betsy Gardner is the editor of Data-Smart City Solutions and the producer of the Data-Smart City Pod. Prior to joining the Ash Center, Betsy worked in a variety of roles in higher education, focusing on deconstructing racial and gender inequality through research, writing, and facilitation. She also researched government spending and transparency at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. Betsy holds a master’s degree in Urban and Regional Policy from Northeastern University, a bachelor’s degree in Art History from Boston University, and a graduate certificate in Digital Storytelling from the Harvard Extension School.