NCSL elections guru Wendy Underhill is steeped in redistricting, and this spring she decided she wanted to be steeped in the data that underpins redistricting decisions. So she threw her hat in the ring to serve as part of an independent review of how the 2020 census was conducted.
Underhill and 13 others have been chosen by the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine to serve on the review panel, whose work evaluating the quality of the census has already begun. Most members are statisticians, demographers, data experts or sociologists.
James Whitehorne, chief of the Redistricting and Voting Rights Data Office at the U.S. Census Bureau, says Underhill’s unique background makes her a great fit.
“Wendy’s a welcome voice because she really knows the concerns around the redistricting use case, because she hears not just from Republicans or Democrats, she hears from all sides,” he says. “She has a really strong, broad view of how people use the data, what they’re looking for in the data, what’s important to them, being aware there’s flexibility around issues with the data. I think that viewpoint is something that’s going to be really critical.”
Underhill says the first in-depth five-hour meeting confirmed for her how much she will value the assignment.
“I thought it was a chance to go even deeper on something that seems bureaucratic,” she says. “Now I know it has more wrinkles than a rhinoceros, and therefore it’s surprisingly challenging and exciting.”
The census is, of course, a massive undertaking. Underhill notes it is the second-largest federal government operation behind the military when it expands to about 500,000 employees during the census period every 10 years. It provides the data for redistricting, as well as determining funding for major government programs.
“Census data is used in formulas that help distribute federal funds to states in the amount of $1.5 trillion each year for the next decade,” Underhill says, noting the money goes to things such as Medicaid, student loans, highway planning and construction, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
‘Nooks and Crannies’
The panel’s review will be extensive.
“We can review all of the procedural choices, all of the policy choices, implementation, look into nooks and crannies,” Underhill says. “The bureau is providing great starting points for us, and the committee will figure out where it wants to dig a little deeper.”
And as the panel looks for recommendations for further research or steps to improve the process in 2030, a big factor is the pandemic, which had an extraordinary impact on all the plans for 2020.
“It’s really startling. The census was well planned in advance. Then the pandemic took place and everything, every procedure and process, was affected,” Underhill says. That means if panel members conclude something didn’t work as planned, they have to sort out whether the plan was off or was derailed by the pandemic.
Another key question will be whether the census approach overcounted or undercounted populations known as “hard to count.” Those groups include young children, non-English speakers and low-income residents.
The Census Bureau checks its work by sampling the nation and comparing the work against the census results. The panel will check to make sure all these steps led to the best data possible.
Another area to examine will be whether steps the Census Bureau took to ensure privacy provided appropriate protections while not skewing the results.
The panel will serve through April 2023 and will issue recommendations that the bureau can consider for the next count in 2030. Underhill says the bureau is eager to have the outside review.
“Everyone wants to get it right,” she says.
Kelley Griffin is a writer and editor in NCSL’s Communications Division.