By Wendy Underhill
The census is at once as simple as counting one, two, three, and as complex as democracy itself. The goal has always been to determine how many people are living in the United States—but the reason has been above all else to ensure that political power is distributed according to population.
Of course, the census is used for many other reasons, too: divvying up the federal funding pie among hungry states is huge, and all decision-makers rely on good data. But the reason the census was included in the U.S. Constitution in the first place was to determine how many seats each state would get in the brand-new House of Representatives. (Back then, it was one seat for every 30,000 people, and enslaved individuals counted as three-fifths of a person.)
The census has continued to count people every 10 years ever since. This time, there are two potential hiccups: one is the pandemic and consequent delays; the other is that a new system to maintain confidentiality for every household’s information may cause census data to be less reliable than in previous decades.
For more on the first, see an earlier blog post, “Lots of Questions as Census Bureau Delays the Count.” With COVID-19 delaying its field operations for months, the Census Bureau has asked Congress for a four-month reprieve on its deadlines for delivering detailed data to the states. Getting the data to redistricters four months later than normal throws a dozen states into the uncomfortable position of missing constitutional deadlines. NCSL has two webpages that can help: To find out how your state may be affected, see 2020 Census Delays and the Impact on Redistricting; to find your constitutional (and statutory) deadlines, see State Redistricting Deadlines.
As for the bureau’s new approach to privacy—one that will alter population numbers at every level of geography below the state total—see the blog post “The Census: Balancing Data Privacy with Usability,” NCSL’s webpage Differential Privacy for Census Data, Explained, and the letter that Utah’s legislative leadership sent to the bureau expressing its grave concern that the population likely to be reported for small communities may be wildly different from what’s true on the ground.
Based on all this, NCSL last week wrote to Congress and to the director of the Census Bureau, Steve Dillingham, expressing concerns on both counts. Our ask of Congress: Increase oversight. Our ask of the bureau: Consult with states individually on their timelines; try not to use the entirety of the four-month extension before giving the states their data; and commit to a phased rollout, with the hardest hit states getting their data first.
Our ask of you, the reader: Check with your state’s demography mavens about whether data treated with differential privacy will be sufficiently accurate for all your state’s data needs, and check with your redistricting attorneys about how the delay will affect your redistricting timeline. We’d love to know what you learn, so NCSL can continue to ensure that state legislatures have a “strong, cohesive voice in the federal system.” That’s one-third of our mission, after all.
Wendy Underhill is the director of NCSL’s Elections and Redistricting Program.