Eric Davis: Issues threaten vital 2020 census

The Constitution requires that a census of population be conducted every 10 years to determine the apportionment of seats in the House of Representatives among the states. Census information is used by state legislatures and independent commissions to draw the lines of congressional and state legislative districts. Many federal grant programs use census information to determine the allocation of funds among states and localities. Census data is used by businesses and non-profit organizations in planning and assessing their activities.
Because census information is used so widely, having an accurate census is important. However, planning for the 2020 census is not going smoothly. As has been the case throughout the Trump Administration, many key leadership positions in the Census Bureau and the Commerce Department remain unfilled. Plans for pre-testing census questionnaires are behind schedule. Liaison with state and local governments is not as robust as it was in the run-up to the 2010 census.
Added to these difficulties is the nature of the 2020 census — the first online census in the nation’s history. Rather than relying on people filling out and returning mailed questionnaires, the 2020 census is being designed so that most people will complete a census questionnaire online. However, due to a combination of budget cuts and technical challenges, planning for the online census is taking longer than planned. The extensive technological infrastructure needed to support the census has not yet been fully developed and tested. Many questions about cybersecurity relating to the 2020 census have yet to be answered satisfactorily.
There is also a major dispute over whether a question about citizenship will be included on the census questionnaire. Such a question has never been asked on a previous census. The Constitution provides that House seats are apportioned among the states “according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each State.” Federal courts have consistently ruled that this language refers to a census of population, not to a census of citizens or a census of voting-age population. All persons living in the United States, regardless of age or citizenship status, are the basis on which House seats are apportioned and legislative districts are drawn.
Almost since its first day in office, the Trump Administration has wanted to add a question about citizenship to the census. All respondents would have to indicate whether or not they are United States citizens. The citizenship question, which is not required by the Constitution, can be seen as part of the Trump Administration’s anti-immigrant agenda, and as a form of voter suppression.
Including a citizenship question may well discourage participation by non-citizen U.S. residents in the census. This would reduce the number of legislative seats in areas with large immigrant populations. Since most such areas tend to elect Democrats to Congress and state legislatures, a census form that would discourage immigrants from participating would, at the margin, advantage Republican candidates.
New York State, and a number of other states and cities, have sued the Commerce Department to have the citizenship question removed from the 2020 census. They argue that, in addition to the question’s not being required for any constitutional purpose, Commerce Department officials did not follow the proper procedure of notice and public comment before circulating a draft questionnaire including the citizenship question. A lower federal court ruled in favor of the challengers to the citizenship question.
Last week, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the government’s appeal of this decision, with oral arguments scheduled in April and a decision likely in late June or early July. With the April 1, 2020, date for the next census just over a year away, there are many important issues involving the questionnaire and the technology that must be resolved soon if the next census is to be successful and accurate.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.

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