The NCSL Blog


By Patrick R. Potyondy

Sure, we all “know” what the census is, right? And yet, if you are like me, you might need a refresher. 

census formI’ll be offering a series of blog posts on every aspect of the census (well, as many aspects as I can). To start, here are some of the basics you need to know about the fast-approaching 2020 Census.

1. Why Do We Have One?

Because the Constitution says so, although it’s referred to there as the “Enumeration” (see Article 1, Section 2). Second, it’s really, really useful.

2. What  Is It Used For?

First, the census is the basis for how congressional and state legislative districts get drawn, right on down the line to the school district level. In short, it provides the data to ensure equal representation at all levels of government. Second, the federal government uses it to distribute billions and billions in federal money to the states. Third, all sorts of planning debates and decisions are informed by it, and not just plans and debates in government. Businesses and other organizations make use of its data all the time, too. For all this data, “72-Year Rule” applies: The government is not allowed to release personal data on individuals for, you guessed it, 72 years. That means census data on individuals from the 1940 census only became available in April of 2012.

3) Counting People Is Hard

The U.S. Census Bureau aims to “count everyone once, only once and in the right place.” Just how exactly it counts every single person in the whole country is more complicated than it might first appear. Examples of how complicated it gets are legion: People move around a lot; they live in nontraditional households; lives get busy; some folks are suspicious of governments collecting information about them; demographics continue to fluctuate and change. Add on top of all those factors the cost of the whole enterprise and changing technology—the bureau is promoting the internet as the primary mode of response—make it even more intricate.

4. Practice Makes for a (Hopefully) Perfect Delivery

Both Republicans and Democrats have noted that funding for the census is currently below adequate levels. The Census Bureau had planned to conduct three test-runs before the big event. Because of lagging funding levels, however, the bureau will conduct only a single test before the final, official count in April 2020. All of this requires massive planning. Bureau staff figure out everything from the number of census field offices to the “Nonresponse Followup Detailed Operational Plan.” Central to all the planning is working with state, local and tribal governments to review, verify and update address lists known as the Local Update of Census Addresses or LUCA.

5. There’s No Fooling About This Date: Census Day Is April 1, 2020

Ready or not, the census will take place on April 1, 2020. Its success relies on the promotion and cooperation of local and state governments as well as adequate federal funding. The Census Bureau then has one year exactly to deliver the final data.

Patrick Potyondy is a Mellon-ACLS public fellow and a legislative policy specialist with NCSL’s Elections and Redistricting Program. He plans to write more on the 2020 Census in the coming weeks and months.

Email Patrick 

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About the NCSL Blog

This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.