The NCSL Blog


By Patrick R. Potyondy

Providence County, Rhode Island, is now the center of the universe—well, the census universe at least.

census formThat's because the county is the home of the one-and-only end-to-end census test. The test is the U.S. Census Bureau’s single shot at figuring out what is going well and what needs fixing before the real deal happens in the spring of 2020. It is the country’s largest civilian exercise, after all, since it literally involves every single person living in the United States.

An end-to-end census test is a comprehensive dress rehearsal of the actual decennial census. It encompasses every stage of the census count that the federal government conducts every 10 years as demanded by the U.S. Constitution.

In this scenario, “Census Day” will not be April 1, 2020 (the official date), but April 1, 2018, instead. The goal is the same, however: “to count everyone once, and only once in the right place” in Providence. Since this is the first census to make internet self-response the primary means of responding, testing is crucial. Responses also will be collected via phone, paper questionnaires, and in-person follow-ups to nonresponding households (the last being one of the two most expensive parts of the census). 

Technically, the full end-to-end test began in August 2017. Early stages included projects such as finalizing the questionnaire to be used in the test. But the self-response phase, the phase most of us think of when we think of the census, will happen between March and August 2018. That is when the actual responses will be gathered and the data stored.

Why Providence County? It’s not entirely clear. The U.S. Census Bureau has called it “an ideal community” for the test, perhaps because it holds a mix of urban and suburban neighborhoods. The area also boasts a high-level of diversity. Communities of color have historically been undercounted, and are therefore known as hard-to-count populations in census speak.

Testing there allows the bureau to work with numerous ethnic groups and, likely, languages. Racially, the county level is roughly 62 percent non-Hispanic white, 22 percent Hispanic or Latino, 12 percent black or African American, and almost 5 percent Asian American. This closely mirrors the country as a whole.

The Census Bureau had planned on three complete end-to-end tests. Due to underfunding, however, there will only be one. The other two sites, in parts of West Virginia and Washington state, were to test rural districts, areas with Native American communities, and a major military base. The bureau will have to make due with just the one dry run.

Still, the bureau has conducted “address canvassing” in all three of the original locations. The goal of this process was to test operations that sought to compile an accurate address list and spatial database needed to run the census.

The census is incredibly important. It determines not only congressional apportionment but the allocation of more than $600 billion in federal funds to the states. But the 2020 Census can use your help, including working to make sure the Census Bureau has the funds it needs as well as creating and serving on Complete Count Committees at state and local levels.

To find out more about what state legislators and staff can do to support the 2020 Census, be sure to register for our webinar, co-hosted with the U.S. Census Bureau, on Tuesday, Dec. 19, entitled “2020 Census: How State Legislators Can Make a Difference.”

Patrick Potyondy is a Mellon-ACLS public fellow and a legislative policy specialist with NCSL’s Elections and Redistricting Program.

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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.