Challenges to Census Data

1/3/2022

Alternative Text

The goal of the decennial census is to count all the people living in the United States, count them only once and count them in the right place. Although the U.S. Census Bureau strives to meet that goal, each decennial census is unique and none has been (or can be) perfect. Knowing that, the Bureau established its challenge program - the Count Question Resolution (CQR) for the 1990 census.

The CQR is an opportunity for state, local, and tribal area highest elected officials to challenge their jurisdiction’s census counts after detailed data is delivered. This challenge system is limited in scope but provides an opportunity to improve the quality of the census data by correcting errors related to geographic boundaries, geo-coding errors, and processing errors relating to data already collected in the census (e.g., correcting for duplication). These updates will assure the accurate distribution of federal funds and provide improved data for policy decision-making. Plus, when a challenge is successful, the new data will be used to calculate any subsequent population estimates by the Bureau. It will not revise apportionment, redistricting or other data products, such as the Demographic and Housing Characteristics File.

Note: The Census Bureau released a Federal Register notice on October 29, 2021. In December 2021, the Bureau notified state, local and tribal governments about the CQR program and provide more information about how to participate in CQR. On Jan. 3, 2022, the Bureau begins accepting CQR cases. 

Count Question Resolution

The Count Question Resolution operation is an opportunity for the tribal chairpersons and the highest elected officials (or their representative) from state and local governments in the U.S. to request a review of their official census results. While standards for making changes are high, and CQR  is the final operation by which updates to the census data can be made.

State, local, and tribal area elected officials may submit a request to review the official census counts of population and housing, and to correct boundary, geocoding, and certain coverage or processing issues. The Census Bureau will not collect any additional data during the challenge or review process.

The Census Bureau will use the updated counts to:

  • Modify the decennial census file for use in the bureau’s annual post-census annual population estimates beginning with the population estimate for 2021 that will be released in 2022.
  • Create the errata information (list of corrected errors) made available on the Census Bureau website.

The Census Bureau won’t use the updated counts to:

  • Make any changes to the state totals in congressional apportionment counts, redistricting data, or official 2020 Census data products.

The Census Bureau will accept CQR challenges between January 3, 2022 and June 30, 2023, electronically and in writing through mail or email with appropriate documentation.

What can be challenged?

The CQR program’s guidelines are strict on what mistakes can be challenged. When met, CQR agents determine whether the challenge is a boundary case, a geocoding case, a coverage case, or a combination of all three. 

1. Boundary challenges can be used to correct inaccurate or missing boundaries that were in effect on Jan. 1, 2020. The housing counts in the boundary correction will be reviewed if the challenge supplies the required individual address records for the affected block(s).

2. Geocoding challenges can be used to correct the placement of living quarters (such as a house, apartment, mobile home, or military vessel) and associated population within the correct boundaries and census tabulation blocks.

3. Coverage challenges can be used to add or delete specific living quarters and those counts associated therein that were erroneously included as duplicates or excluded from enumeration. Coverage corrections are limited to census processing errors that existed in census records as of April 1, 2020.

Incorrect geographic boundary, housing and counts have been used to produce official census counts in the past, and the CQR process is intended to fix these. For instance, in 2011, the bureau revised the population counts for two 2010 census blocks in Norfolk, Va., when a geocoding error placed ships ported at the Norfolk Naval Station incorrectly. As a successful challenge, the bureau noted the errors and created an erratum. The bureau further created a user update and noted the corrections’ application to 2010 Census data products, such as the Redistricting Data (Public Law 94-171) Summary File. These corrected counts affected the following annual population estimates.   

How is a challenge processed?

Once a challenge is received, it goes through a series of review steps, often taking several months before  a decision is made and the challenger is notified. In 2010, there were six review steps:

1 – Conduct initial review of submitted challenge materials

2 – Conduct clerical review of challenge materials

3 – Match the submitted addresses to Census addresses (At this point, the bureau will no longer discuss specific addresses with the submitting jurisdiction or anyone else outside the Census Bureau)

4 – Research challenge documentation

5 – Challenges are resolved by one of three outcomes

6 – Prepare findings, inform the jurisdiction and the public

What if a challenge results in a change?

The Census CQR team resolves all challenges. If a challenge results in a change, the Census Bureau delivers new, officially revised counts to the affected state, local, and tribal area elected officials in a determination letter. Those officials can use the updated data for future programs that require official 2020 Census data.

The bureau will update the MAF/TIGER system, the bureau’s geographic database system, and new geographic products will be sent to the Population Estimates Program to calculate subsequent population estimates. The bureau will also prepare and distribute final data and errata files for distribution and place the corrections on the yet created 2020 CQR webpage.

Additional Resources

2020 CQR program

2010 CQR program