Together we can continue to strengthen our democracy

Maria del Carmen Gutierrez

On this Census Day, April 1, we want to pause and reflect on how far we’ve come on the path to creating a more perfect union, and highlight how much work is left to be done.

In 2016, Pennsylvania Voice recognized the importance of the 2020 Census and began building what would become the Keystone Counts Coalition, a group of nearly 100 partners, including CASA. The coalition worked to ensure that every Pennsylvanian, particularly those from BIPOC and other traditionally undercounted communities would participate in the Census and ensure that democracy in Pennsylvania would be reflective of who we truly are as a Commonwealth.

Pennsylvania’s Census response rate in 2020 was above the national average, and we know that’s due in part to our momentous efforts. 

Jonathan Nunez, 8, holds a banner while Daniel Alvalle, CASA state director, speaks during a rally at Renaissance Park outside the CASA office on East Princess Street in York City Tuesday, March 15, 2022. Participants were calling for equitable funding for schools in the wake of a lawsuit challenging Pennsylvania's school funding system. Bill Kalina photo

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That said, there is still much work yet to be done. A recent report shows that BIPOC communities were significantly undercounted during the Census, and that Latinx residents were undercounted at a rate three times higher than in 2010, likely due to the Trump administration’s well-publicized push for a citizenship question on the form. 

At immigrant advocacy organization CASA, during our outreach to encourage folks to complete the Census, overcoming fears that filling out the Census wouldn’t endanger them was a major challenge, but we worked hard to convince them that participating in the Census is their right, and that democracy cannot function as it should unless we rise and be counted. 

Once the Census was complete, we pivoted to ensuring that the data generated would be used to develop state legislative maps that would be reflective of all Pennsylvanians. Our partner organizations went out into their communities and asked residents to provide feedback so that we could develop “unity maps” that we could submit to the Legislative Reapportionment Commission. 

At CASA, we focused primarily on York and Lancaster, both of which are home to significant Latinx populations. Our work helped give us a better understanding of the geography of our communities and made us realize that we were part of something bigger than ourselves as individuals. The people we spoke with felt more like a part of the Pennsylvania community as a whole because of their ability to participate in the process and make their voices heard. 

We also testified before the commission on multiple occasions, making it known that it was no longer acceptable for the power of our communities to be diluted, and demanding that we have the political power that we deserve. We applaud the commission for making racial equity a core concern to an unprecedented degree, and we will continue to work to ensure that the maps drawn next time build on that progress. 

The final maps in Lancaster hewed extremely closely to our proposed maps, and after submitting comments on the initial maps, the lines in York were adjusted to better reflect our communities in and around that city. On a statewide level, the maps are a marked improvement over the existing ones, although the fact that the House map offers more opportunities for BIPOC communities to elect leaders of their choosing than does the Senate map demonstrates that there is work yet to be done to fulfill the promise of a true multi-racial democracy. 

The promise of democracy, which was born right here in Pennsylvania, is that all of us count the same, a promise that we have been working towards since the founders met in Philadelphia to draft the Constitution, but continued progress is not assured. Attacks on this cherished principle are underway across the country–whether through systematic undercounting of marginalized communities in the Census, gerrymandering, attempts to make it difficult or impossible for some citizens to vote, or even a literal assault on the Capitol itself as we saw on Jan. 6. 

It is clear that we the people will have to remain engaged in all aspects of the democratic process. Through voting, standing up to be counted, and demanding that our rights be recognized, we all must work together to achieve a more perfect union for all of us.

— In her role as director of membership, Maria del Carmen Gutierrez designs and manages the Membership Field Program with almost 100 canvassers in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia which is building power, increasing financial strength, and growing the organizing capacity of CASA.