The battle over the 2020 census: Why it matters and what you can do right now

By Connie Lin

The once-in-a-decade census count is well underway, but officials are mostly concerned with when it will end.

Here’s the latest on what’s happening with the 2020 census:

The Background

Earlier this year, the Census Bureau said that due to delays caused by the coronavirus pandemic, it would need until October 31 to finish its effort to gather a population count that meets a 99% completion standard in most states—a process that includes dispatching agents to knock on front doors of households that haven’t filled out the survey. It also requested the deadline for presidential reporting of data be postponed from December 31 to April 30, 2021.

The House signed off on the changes but the Senate had not yet done so, when Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, in an abrupt about-face last month, moved the final day for counting up to September 30 and said the data would be reported to the president by the end of December.

Civic advocates challenged the move, and earlier this month, a federal judge blocked Ross and the bureau from ending the count before October 31. But despite the ruling, a Monday tweet from the bureau said that per Ross, the count is “targeted” to end October 5. Expect ongoing litigation to continue.

Why does this matter?

First and foremost, the truncated timeline has sown worries about the accuracy of the census. According to bureau officials, fieldwork increases participation in “lagging sub-state areas, such as tribal areas, rural areas, and hard-to-count communities,” which are, historically, minority and immigrant communities. With less time for fieldwork, we can expect minority groups to be undercounted—and thus underrepresented in our democratic system, as census numbers are used to determine how many House representatives a state is given, as well as how billions of dollars of federal funding is spent.

But while census inaccuracies undermine minority groups, they uplift political candidates such as President Trump, whose support among most minorities is low or next to nothing. Some pundits had already been fearing for the integrity of the census after the Trump administration first tried to add a question about citizenship to the survey and then ordered the Commerce Department to prepare state-by-state tallies of unauthorized immigrants, which it intended to subtract from census totals. The current, longstanding policy of the census is to count all of the country’s residents, regardless of their legal status.

It’s no coincidence that the new timeline has data reported by the end of December—when President Trump would still be in office regardless of the election outcome, leaving him time to rework census totals before they’re approved for congressional reapportionment.

What can you do?

If this concerns you, the most important thing you can do is fill out the census survey, to ensure that you are counted. You now have until October 5—so hurry! Your future is on the line!


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