How the 2020 census is trying to overcome Covid-19, digital divides, and Trump to get an accurate count

Efi Chalikopoulou for Vox

Another court defeat for the Trump administration means people have until October 31 to fill out their census form.

2020 has been a strange and unpredictable year for so many things, and the US census is no exception.

Some of its challenges were anticipated: It’s America’s first digital census, so even though some people have the option to respond offline, the majority of its responses are meant to be handled online. The census has also been dealing with funding cuts and the Trump administration’s continued attempts to exclude undocumented immigrants from its count. But the pandemic added a whole new set of problems to the mix, resulting in what some experts fear will be the least accurate census in modern history.

Since the census determines how many representatives states get in Congress and how federal funding is distributed, undercounted communities will be deprived of resources and representation. You can help avoid this by responding now if you haven’t already.

There is still time to respond to the 2020 census, thanks to a Thursday court decision that extends the deadline to October 31.

In a normal year, self-response and door-to-door census-taking would have been done by July 31. When the pandemic pushed everything back, the Census Bureau set a new deadline of October 31. Then in August, under pressure from the Trump administration, the Bureau suddenly announced that it would wrap up those operations by September 30. Several organizations and some municipalities sued the Census Bureau and the Department of Commerce, which oversees the Bureau. They were able to get a preliminary injunction that put the deadline back to October 31.

The Trump administration is planning to appeal that decision, however, so there’s still a chance the deadline will go back to September 30. Respond now to ensure that you’ll be counted no matter what the outcome.

Why you should respond

“The census is the largest, most complex activity this nation conducts short of mobilizing for war,” Terri Ann Lowenthal, former staff director of the House census oversight subcommittee and census consultant, told Recode.

The census count affects everything from how many seats in the House of Representatives a state gets to how trillions of dollars in federal funds are distributed to communities across the country for the next 10 years. That money goes to things like Medicaid, roads, education, assistance for lower-income families, and environmental programs. Your life will be affected, one way or another, by the census results.

It happens once every 10 years, it’s mandated in the Constitution, and you are legally required to respond to it. But not everyone does: In previous recent censuses, roughly two-thirds of the population self-responded, and that’s about how many have self-responded this year so far. But this national number can be a bit misleading, as self-response rates vary across the country.

The rest of the count comes from census takers who go to the homes of nonrespondents, and then from other methods the census uses to impute whoever is still missing. But the self-response is generally considered to be the most accurate answer, so the more of those the census gets, the better. This is especially true for so-called “hard to count” areas, where people are more likely to be undercounted or missed. Those tend to be certain minorities, people with lower incomes, people who live in rural or remote communities, and young children. The Census Bureau gives four main reasons why some groups are hard to count: hard to locate, hard to contact, hard to persuade, and hard to interview.

How to respond

For 2020, the Census Bureau promoted an online option that makes it easier than ever for most people to respond. Unless you live in certain remote or rural communities that don’t have physical addresses for mail service, you should have received a notice in the mail with your census ID, which you can use to log into the online questionnaire. If you don’t have your census ID, just click this link to answer a few additional questions about your address and you’ll be able to fill out the questionnaire. If you don’t have an address, that’s okay, too: You can and should still answer with as much information about your location as possible.

If you don’t have easy access to the internet or would rather respond offline, you can call (844) 330-2020 if you speak English and live in the 50 states or Washington, DC. If you need to answer in another language or if you live in Puerto Rico, check this for a list of phone numbers for the one that applies to your situation.

A third option is in the mail. If you didn’t respond to the initial invitation mailed to you in March, you should have received a paper questionnaire to mail back instead.

What happens if you don’t respond

If you don’t self-respond, you’re leaving it up to someone else to ensure that you’ll be counted accurately — or at all. Census takers, or enumerators, will try to visit every household that doesn’t self-respond, a process that was supposed to begin in May. The pandemic pushed things back significantly, so census takers began their work in most places in mid-August. If census takers are unable to reach you through their door-to-door efforts, they might rely on proxies — asking your neighbor or landlord to supply the information instead, for instance — or they will just mark your home as vacant. The more work enumerators have to do and the less time they have to do it, the less accurate the census count will likely be.

“More self-response means better data, so more time for self-response is a good thing,” Steven Romalewski, director of the mapping service at the Center for Urban Research at City University of New York Graduate Center and creator of the “Hard to Count” map, told Recode. Romalewski said the recent ruling extending the deadline “also means the Bureau will stick to its Covid-19 timeframe for nonresponse followup, meaning the door-knocking enumeration won’t be rushed, and census takers will have the time they had planned on to be more thorough in reaching people in the hardest-to-count communities.”

After October 31, the Bureau will switch to other means to complete the count, like using existing administrative records from other agencies, such as the Social Security Administration and state departments of motor vehicles. These are considered to be the least accurate method of counting, and the most likely to miss typically undercounted populations.

Why 2020’s census could be one of the least accurate ever

Between budget cuts, politics, and the pandemic, the 2020 census — an already complex and massive undertaking — has been more difficult to pull off. Experts have been warning for years that the 2020 census is underfunded to the point that it could affect its accuracy. This underfunding predates Trump’s presidency, but Trump hasn’t helped matters.

“We’ve never had a pandemic like this; we’ve never had a political climate this bad,” Romalewski said. “In some ways, it’s impressive that we’ve even gotten to this level. But we know that in 2010, even with a higher self-response rate, there were still problems with the accuracy, the count, as far as certain population groups go. So despite the challenges, we still need to do better.”

Trump was determined to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census, the justification for which remained elusive — which was why the Supreme Court struck it down. But Trump’s push for it still discouraged many undocumented immigrants from responding. Their undocumented status could also mean they don’t show up in the administrative records the Bureau will use to fill in the numbers of people who weren’t counted by enumerators or self-responses.

“It really did enormous damage to the trust that people need to have in the Census Bureau in order to participate,” Romalewski said.

The Trump administration is now trying to exclude undocumented immigrants from the census, recently ordering that their numbers not be included when determining congressional apportionments. The final decision on this will likely be determined by the Supreme Court in the coming months.

The pandemic has added several new wrinkles to the already troubled process. Planned in-person events to spread awareness or take census counts — which often focus on hard-to-count areas — have been canceled or replaced with virtual outreach efforts. But those won’t do much for areas with limited or no internet access, which tend to be undercounted in the first place.

Even some of the questionnaire distributions have had to be delayed. Typically, homes that don’t have regular mail delivery — remote or rural communities, including Native American reservations — get their census forms through hand delivery. The pandemic delayed these, which therefore delayed their responses.

People also may be less inclined to open their door and talk to a stranger when census takers come to their homes for nonresponse followups. The Census Bureau has had trouble hiring and retaining census takers due, in part, to their reluctance to be exposed to multitudes of people in the middle of a pandemic (the bureau was already having trouble getting enough workers before the pandemic hit).

The new timing of in-person operations is also not ideal, Lowenthal told Recode. Coming in late summer and early fall puts it in the middle of wildfire and hurricane season — two things that make it difficult to conduct in-person counts in affected locations. And the length of time that has elapsed between the census date of April 1 and the beginning of the in-person counts, as well as the significantly increased movement of people around the country because of the pandemic, may also cause accuracy issues.

“Once the population started to churn because of the pandemic, the Census Bureau faced an unprecedented challenge of trying to count people who have moved from where they could have been residing months ago,” Lowenthal said.

The Census Bureau had planned to compensate for these delays by shifting from December 31, 2020, to April 30, 2021 as the date when the president would receive the final results with the apportionment counts. This would both give people enough time to respond and the Census Bureau ample time to process the data it collected. The Trump administration initially agreed with this, asking Congress to extend the deadline accordingly. But the Senate has so far failed to act, despite the House passing a bill that included an extension and bipartisan support in the Senate.

Then, the Trump administration changed course on that April 2021 deadline. In early August, the Census Bureau announced that it was concluding self-response and field operations a month early in order to have three months to process all the data and meet a December 31 deadline to give the results to the president. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross said that the Bureau would be able to deliver its complete and accurate count by this time.

But many others disagree. Internal Census Bureau emails show its employees have serious concerns that the new deadlines can be met, and the Office of the Inspector General for the Department of Commerce said in a recent report that the accelerated timeline will likely increase the risk of an inaccurate and incomplete count. A report from the American Statistical Association estimated that cutting the response deadline short by a month would mean significantly fewer households will be counted in some states. That, in turn, could mean that the communities that already tend to have the lowest self-response rates are more likely to be inaccurately counted again.

The recent decision from Northern California District Court Judge Lucy Koh extends the response deadline back to October 31 and suspends the December 31 deadline to give the results to the president, which should give the Bureau the time it needs to process the data. That’s assuming, of course, that Koh’s decision stands on an appeal.

In the meantime, the count continues.

“The Census Bureau continues to focus on conducting a complete 2020 Census count and will comply with court orders,” the Bureau told Recode.

There is one bright spot here: the online self-response system. Leading up to the census, there were concerns that too much traffic at once could cause the site to crash or that it might fall victim to a cybersecurity attack. That doesn’t appear to have happened.

“The majority of people responding to the 2020 census on their own have done so online, the online response has not experienced a single moment of downtime since it opened in March,” the Census Bureau said.

So, why don’t you go ahead and fill yours out now.


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