By Patrick R. Potyondy
Los Angeles—In a fiery session at the recent NCSL Legislative Summit, James Whitehorne, chief of the redistricting and voting rights office of the U.S. Census Bureau, faced questions from an overflowing room touching on all aspects of the 2020 Census.
The opening questions fell to moderator Senator Adam Morfeld (D-Neb.) who opened the “Ask Me Anything” session by asking Whitehorne about: upcoming preparation milestones for the count, cybersecurity concerns given this is the first internet census and best practices regarding census support.
That last issue was made all the more pertinent as NCSL would go on to renew its census policy resolution at the conference—“NCSL supports a full and complete census count”—which passed for the first time at last year’s Legislative Summit in Boston.
From the audience, the proposed citizenship question surfaced first when a legislator made it clear that he believes the question will only reduce and disfigure the count. Another audience member then asked if and why employment applications to work as census enumerators would ask about the citizenship status of applicants. Whitehorne explained the official rationale behind both issues.
Other questions that came up regarded problematic P.O. boxes, which make it hard for census forms to get where they’re supposed to go, and the possible use of existing government administrative records or demographic trends to help pre-fill information or find missing or needed information.
Much has been done regarding that last suggestion, including the use of third-party commercial vendors, but coordination between large government agencies can be legally fraught and logistically complex. Audience members also brought up questions surrounding cybersecurity and overall data privacy given that this is the first census to utilize internet responses.
A second census session featured Jeff Wice, special counsel with the New York General Assembly and NCSL staff co-chair for the Redistricting and Elections Standing Committee, Susan Brower, Minnesota state demographer and Senator Richard Pan (D-Calif.), Redistricting and Elections Committee member and chair of the California senate committee on the 2020 Census.
Each speaker focused on efforts in their home states to reach hard-to-count populations—the label for groups of people who are overlooked with standard census practices. Brower, for example, detailed how census data is crucial for Minnesota’s economy, from spurring business expansion to attracting investment to workforce development.
As she said in her presentation, “Census data give the private sector the confidence to get their limited capital off the sidelines and put it to productive, efficient use.”
If you’re looking for more on the 2020 Census, be sure to check out NCSL’s Census Resources and legislation webpage for information on everything from complete count committees to state funding for census promotion.
Patrick Potyondy is a Mellon-ACLS public fellow and a legislative policy specialist with NCSL’s Elections and Redistricting Program.