A project meant to be a decade in preparation, the 2020 census, still faces a number of uncertainties, which experts warn could lead to an inaccurate count with potentially large impacts on federal spending and congressional maps.
Though a pending Supreme Court decision over a citizenship question has dominated much of the conversation surrounding the census, other hurdles include the Census Bureau’s overall funding, cybersecurity concerns and untested methods.
“A really good way to screw up the American economy and waste a lot of taxpayer money is to have a bad census,” said Andrew Reamer, a George Washington University professor who studies census data.
Census data influences the flow of billions of federal dollars and thousands of business decisions, Reamer said, ranging from population surveys to assessments of market penetration.
The 2020 census is not the first to face last-minute challenges. Before the 2000 census, for instance, the Supreme Court banned the planned use of statistical sampling. Problems with handheld electronics during the 2010 census required the bureau to reintroduce paper enumeration.
Each time, addressing those issues took massive amounts of work and infusions of federal funds to keep the process rolling. Experts say the Census Bureau could find itself in a similar last-minute scramble over the next few months.
Experts said the Trump administration’s decision to add a citizenship question for this census could raise the cost and risk undercounting noncitizens. That could have an outsize impact in states with higher immigrant populations like New York, which could lose one or more House seats.
A question of citizenship
The administration’s move to ask about citizenship rocked preparations for the decennial count, as congressional Democrats and advocates argued noncitizens might not respond.
States and civil rights groups, including New York Attorney General Letitia James, sued in 2018, alleging the decision violated administrative law. Trial judges in three separate cases agreed, and the administration appealed, arguing that the bureau needs the citizenship question responses to help enforce the Voting Rights Act.
In April, the Supreme Court heard the case. The government asked the justices to rule before the end of June so it can finalize the questionnaires for printing. Then, late last week, advocates revealed they hold documents suggesting a deceased Republican redistricting strategist served as the source of the question, intending to draw congressional maps for GOP political advantage.
Democrats, including Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, co-leader of the House Census Caucus and a leading Democratic voice on census issues, argued the documents demonstrate a deliberate attempt to turn the census into a political weapon.
“This is not a smoking gun. This is a confession of the Trump administration’s illegal attempt to hijack the 2020 census and remake the political landscape of America in their own Republican district image,” Maloney said at a press conference Friday.
A group of Democratic senators, including Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York, also requested a probe by the Commerce and Justice department inspectors general.
Advocates hoped to submit the documents in full to a federal judge in New York, and informed the Supreme Court of the action, but there was uncertainty about whether the justices would consider them in deciding whether to allow the question.
Defenders of the citizenship question have said that even if noncitizens do not respond to the questionnaire, they may still be counted by the census’ follow-up operations. But that drop in self-response, which the bureau calls the “gold standard” in terms of counting, could make the census more expensive by tens of millions of dollars.
The bureau has estimated that for each percentage point of households that don’t respond to the census, it costs an additional $55 million to do in-person enumeration. Census Bureau researchers have estimated that the citizenship question may reduce the response rate among noncitizens by 5 percent, pushing them into the more expensive in-person process.
That report estimated the cost of the census could increase by more than $120 million as a result of the citizenship question. Those estimates will be tested later this month, as the Census Bureau sends out surveys to 480,000 households nationally to gauge the impact of the question on response rates.
House appropriators aim to allocate billions of dollars for the Census Bureau in anticipation of next year’s count, including $8.45 billion in the fiscal 2020 Commerce-Justice-Science bill approved by the House Appropriations Committee on May 22.
That blew past the administration’s request of $6.1 billion for the 2020 census, a request the committee’s Democratic majority called “disingenuous” for relying on $1 billion in carryover funds and congressional action to address any shortfalls.
Democrats also included a ban on funding to execute the citizenship question in the legislation. However, final appropriations likely won’t be enacted until months after the forms have been printed, making the effect limited.
The Senate version of that legislation hasn’t been introduced yet, and it’s not certain when that will happen. The Commerce-Justice-Science Appropriations ranking member Sen. Jeanne Shaheen said before the congressional recess that their talks are in limbo until a broader overall spending deal can be reached.
A shutdown or continuing resolution to keep the government open past Sept. 30 could disrupt census preparations, leaving the bureau without the resources to hire staff, open offices and take the other steps needed before the census launches in January.
Even if the bureau eventually gets that money, timing could be an issue. For the past several years, Congress and the administration have missed the deadline for annual appropriations bills, instead operating on short-term continuing resolutions that extend government spending at current levels.
That could leave the Census Bureau billions of dollars short of what the administration has said it would need, at $3.5 billion in appropriated funds in the current fiscal year. The Census Bureau’s current operational plan would have it hiring thousands of staff, opening hundreds of offices and finalizing its address list for 2020 during the fall.
Risks of a “bad” census
Once the Supreme Court settles the citizenship dispute and Congress settles funding issues, the actual operation of the census will start with initial tallying in Alaska.
As recently as Friday, the Government Accountability Office has raised hundreds of issues with the census, ranging from the scheduling of in-person counting work to its fraud prevention program, and designated it a “high risk” issue for the government.
In response, the Census Bureau told Congress that it has taken steps to address gaps, hiring staff for contract monitoring, cost management and scheduling. Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham told House appropriators in May that the census is “on time and on budget,” and the agency intends to meet goals such as hiring all of its 1,500 local outreach staff by July.
Former Census Bureau Director John Thompson, who left the administration in 2017, said parts of the census operations, including the new approaches to in-person enumeration, are hard to gauge ahead of time.
“Even though the Census Bureau says it is on track, we are not going to know until they launch operations,” he said.
Several census-watchers, including former Census Bureau directors like Kenneth Prewitt, who served from 1998 to 2001, have argued that the census process remains vulnerable to interference from domestic and foreign actors.
Attempts to disrupt the census could include attempts to steal responses, Prewitt said, or could be as simple as a Facebook post advising people not to fill out forms they receive after April 1, the reference day for the census. The census process gives major social media companies like Facebook a short window to deal with that kind of disruption, he stressed.
“To undo that kind of messaging in the time frame you have available is going to be difficult,” Prewitt said.
The president himself could well undermine faith in the census. Before the traditional April 1 “census day” press conference this year, where the Census Bureau director and staff briefed the media on census procedures, the president tweeted the census would be “worthless” without the citizenship question.
“Can you believe that the Radical Left Democrats want to do our new and very important Census Report without the all important Citizenship Question. Report would be meaningless and a waste of the $Billions (ridiculous) that it costs to put together!” Trump tweeted.
Prewitt said the census process doesn’t allow much leeway, and those missed by the Census Bureau will have their visibility in the political and economic system reduced for a decade.
“You can have a low-turnout election, because it will still do what it needs to do,” Prewitt said. “You can’t have a low-turnout census.”