The NCSL Blog


By Wendy Underhill

I just completed the census questionnaire for our household last night. Amid a sea of uncertainty, this was one task to which I could affirmatively and completely say, “I did it!”

Wendy's finished census formBy now, all households with known mailing addresses will have received a letter asking them to go online and fill out the form.

I went to, and in just about three minutes I had answered all the questions (names, ages and race of householders, our address and whether we rent or own our home) and hit “submit.” The bureau didn’t send me a virtual “I counted!” sticker, but it did give me a nice, congratulatory screen.

(And I’ve now heard from an astute reader, Tony Sissons, who says “Before you log on to, ask all of your housemates what ancestry or origin they consider themselves to be.  If you have to find them and ask them while you are online, you'll likely time out and have to start over.”) 

The first mailings went out on March 12, and 19.2% of households have responded already.

That’s all great—yet COVID-19 is a threat to the census, as well as to so much else.

In light of the public health threat, the bureau has emphasized: “It has never been easier to respond on your own, whether online, over the phone or by mail—all without having to meet a census taker.”  Basically, if you don’t want someone knocking on your door, then do your questionnaire yourself. Here’s the phone number, if you prefer: 844-330-2020.

But there’s a lot more going on behind the scenes as the bureau adjusts its operations to meet its mission. (The official mission: “To serve as the nation's leading provider of quality data about its people and economy. We honor privacy, protect confidentiality, share our expertise globally, and conduct our work openly.” The unofficial mission is to “count everyone once, only once and in the right place.”)

They’ve got until Dec. 31, 2020, to send a report based on total state population to the president and then on to Congress. That report is used to divvy up congressional seats based on population; some states may gain a seat, others may lose a seat and most will probably stay the same.

There’s not a lot of wiggle room, but on the other hand, they’ve got to wiggle. Here are operational changes—so far:

  • All door-to-door operations will be delayed by at least two weeks, until April 1. More delays are possible, and any door-to-door operations are contingent on public health decisions and willing workers. So far we know that the “nonresponse follow-up” begins now on May 28.
  • The Jeffersonville, Ind., data processing center will reduce in-house staff to a minimum to continue its usual operations, answering phone calls from people who prefer to complete their questionnaire by talking to a person are answered at this site.
  • The bureau clarified how college students are to be counted—at the address where they usually live, even if they have moved back home because colleges have shut down. Here’s a video link explaining this.
  • The final date to get responses has been moved from July 31 to Aug. 14.

At this point, guessing what might happen is a fool’s errand. Instead of guessing, NCSL is keeping track of census actions, and you can find those on our 2020 Census Resources and Legislation webpage.

Wendy Underhill is the director of NCSL’s Elections and Redistricting Program.

Email Wendy

Posted in: Census, COVID-19
Actions: E-mail | Permalink |

Subscribe to the NCSL Blog

Click on the RSS feed at left to add the NCSL Blog to your favorite RSS reader. 

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.