By Patrick R. Potyondy
The one-and-only end-to-end test of the decennial census is complete, and the results are, well, mixed.
The U.S. Census Bureau has claimed success. And indeed, the institution, housed under the purview of the Department of Commerce, can point to several high points.
For instance, the test saw higher than expected self-response rates (52.3 percent versus 49.3 percent expected). And a high percentage of respondents also used the internet—with this decennial census being the first time respondents were able to answer this way—at 61.2 percent.
The bureau also tested the iPhones that in-person, door-to-door enumerators will use to conduct follow-ups on non-respondents. Advantages of such technology, the bureau says, include mapping the most efficient route and increasing the efficiency in submitting all types of information.
The increased efficiency was real: In the 2010 Census, the bureau reports, in-person enumerators finished only 1.05 households per hour. In this 2018 test with new technology, they completed 1.56 houses.
Part of this increased efficiency can be credited to the “the relative ease with which the temporary staff [the bureau] hire[ed] as enumerators were able to utilize the technology,” said Ron Jarmin, acting director of the 2020 Census. Finally, the Census Bureau points out that it uses data encryption to ensure the information is kept confidential.
Not all observers were so impressed with the end-to-end test.
Some Rhode Island elected officials held a high-profile “emergency press conference” to express concerns about the test and the overall census. Among other issues, they cited limited language outreach to immigrant communities. And, as is well-chronicled by now, numerous organizations continue to question the insertion of the citizenship question into the 2020 Census—a question that was not tested in Rhode Island.
Furthermore, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued another report on the 2020 Census that questions the readiness of the bureau for the 2020 Census.
It echoed concerns from officials that more needs to be done in outreach to minority groups. It details issues such as more than 3,000 security weaknesses, including 43 issues classified as “high risk” or “very high risk.” Others have voiced concerns over the census’ cybersecurity.
Indeed, eight of the systems that the federal government plans to use in 2020 were not tested in the only end-to-end test. It also cites staffing troubles: Between October 2017 and June 2018, the bureau made only two new hires in its program management offices. Thirty-three of 58 spots remained unfilled. And costs continue to be a problem, with the original promised savings from technology not coming to pass.
The decennial census continues to face some of the issues that have dogged it from earlier, such as the fact that a director is still not in place, and newly added citizenship question faces six federal lawsuits from dozens of states, cities and organizations.
Add to these issues the bankruptcy of the printer the bureau had contracted with to print the hundreds of millions of documents and envelopes needed, and it seems the 2020 Census is still facing high hurdles indeed.
Patrick Potyondy is a Mellon-ACLS public fellow and a legislative policy specialist with NCSL’s Elections and Redistricting Program.