New Jersey Secretary of State talks grassroots census efforts

By Stephen Neukam

In a March 5 speech to the Rider community about the 2020 census, New Jersey Secretary of State Tahesha Way detailed the steps that the state has taken to prepare for the once-a-decade count and emphasized the importance of increased citizen engagement.

The event was co-sponsored by the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics and the Public Relations Student Society of America.

Way, who is the top election official in New Jersey, also leads the New Jersey Complete Count Commission, which is a non-partisan group that is tasked with developing an outreach strategy for the state. The commission includes elected officials, faith-based and business leaders, community advocates and activists. It is these grassroot actors that Way said are integral in accomplishing a complete count and have been a centerpiece in New Jersey’s strategy for this year’s census.

“[Local committees] are the backbone of our grassroots efforts,” said Way. “We have provided grant funding to 17 counties and 52 non-profit organizations to empower them to go out to their local communities and get out the count.”

Way said in an interview with The Rider News that the importance of people engaging in their own communities to ensure a complete count can not be understated. 

“We’ve been actively engaging others throughout local communities… to serve as those trusted voices because they know their neighborhoods best,” said Way.

The state is offering paid jobs to further entice assistance in the census effort.

One of the top difficulties in generating an accurate count is what Way called “hard to count” populations. These populations have historically low response rates and may be in situations that make it hard to respond. For example, there are households that do not have access to the internet or a computer. One of these areas is Trenton, where estimates say only 34% of residents will complete the census, according to Way.

Included in these hard-to-count populations are college students. According to Way, full-time students should fill out the census where they reside most of the time. Also, foreign and/or international students get counted depending on where they go to school.

After an undercount in 2010, New Jersey lost one of its 13 Congressional seats. Way underscored the importance of getting an accurate count by presenting the census not as a civic duty but as an exercise for personal gain. 

The census, she said, determines how and if the federal government will invest an estimated $40 billion in the state. This money determines resources for housing, education, transportation and career training, among other areas.

In the interview, Way said that she wanted people to know three things about the census — it is easy, safe and important.

For the first time, people will be able to respond to the information online.

As tensions about immigration and immigration status raise politically around the country, Way also made clear that the census information is 100% safe and confidential — no state or federal agency is allowed to access a person’s census answers.

Junior political science major and Oregon resident Matthew Schantin said that Way helped clarify some of the questions he had as a student about the census.

“I thought it was helpful to clear up misconceptions and cover general information,” said Schantin. “As an out-of-state student, it was also helpful to get my questions answered by her or her staff.”

News editor Hailey Hensley is president of Rider’s PRSSA. She did not contribute to the writing or editing of this story. 

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