We all know 2020 has been anything but predictable—and the same holds true for the census.
This decade’s census has been rocked by the uncertainties of a global pandemic and 11th-hour administrative changes. COVID-19 has forced the Census Bureau to reevaluate and redesign its plans. The U.S. census is not the only one to experience delays because of the global crisis; Brazil has decided to postpone its 2020 census to 2021.
As questions continue to swirl around census operations and data, here are the best answers we have:
What is the current status of the 2020 census?
Sept. 30 marks the last chance for people to respond to the census on their own, or for census workers to knock on doors. Pre-pandemic, the date would have been July 31. Post-pandemic, the Census Bureau planned for Oct. 31, but in a statement Aug. 3, the administration announced it was moving the end date to the end of September.
But on Sept. 5, a U.S. district judge in the Northern District of California granted a temporary restraining order stopping the Census Bureau from implementing the shortened timelines given in its August statement. The bureau is temporarily stopped from winding down or altering any census field operations until a court hearing scheduled for Sept. 17.
What do we know about the delivery of census data?
The Census Bureau plans to deliver the data used to divide up the 435 seats in the House of Representatives among the 50 states by its statutory deadline of Dec. 31, 2020. That is on time, but also four months earlier than the bureau had proposed in April when it made its first plans based on the pandemic.
The release of the redistricting data, also known as PL 94-171 data, to the states has been wracked by uncertainty—delayed by four months and now back on track, based on the bureau’s Aug. 3 statement. Even though the bureau has not yet formally addressed this delivery, it is working to reestablish the redistricting schedule by hitting the statutorily mandated date of April 1, 2021.
What is the bureau doing to help collect data with the shortened timeline?
While we do not have all the details on how the bureau plans to get the same amount of work done in less time, we do know the bureau is:
- Paying bonuses to field workers, those who knock on doors, to work longer hours.
- Reaching out by phone to some households.
- Conducting additional training sessions for temporary workers.
With less time for field workers to do their work, what will this mean for data quality?
If a household has not returned its questionnaire, field workers try to get the information from neighbors or others who may be in the know. If some data is missing for a household, the bureau has choices on how to fill in the gaps. For instance, if a questionnaire is returned but isn’t complete, the bureau imputes—fills in what’s missing—based on data from other household members, the surrounding neighborhood or administrative records. The bureau has used some form of imputation for many decades for missing data.
What else will administrative records be used for?
The bureau has always used administrative records maintained by federal agencies and tribal, state and local governments to fill in missing data. Last year, the White House issued Executive Order 13880, which directed all executive departments and agencies to assist the Department of Commerce, which houses the Census Bureau, in determining the number of citizens and noncitizens in the country.
In a July 21 memorandum, President Donald Trump directed the Department of Commerce to exclude unauthorized noncitizens and make adjustments to the population totals for the data he will provide to Congress for divvying up its seats. This fall the bureau will provide details on which administrative records will be used and how those records will be applied. However, the Census Bureau has repeatedly committed to counting every person, counting them once, and counting them in the right place.
Have there been any concerns about the 2020 census data?
Yes. Here are a few of those concerns:
- The reduction in field operations will reduce the number of households that provide complete information.
- Quality control operations will be rushed because the period between the close of counting and the release of data is reduced.
- States with larger rural areas and geographically dispersed populations are lagging in response rates. Some rural areas will be disproportionately impacted by the shortened field operations because COVID-19 delayed initial contacts in those areas.
- Hard-to-count areas are still hard to count.
Is there litigation surrounding the census?
You bet. The census has never been as hot a legal issue as it is now. The National Urban League is leading a coalition of others to challenge the administration’s decision to abandon the Census Bureau’s initial COVID-19 plans and rush the data-collection and data-processing timelines.
Six cases are challenging the president’s direction to the Commerce Department to include only noncitizens who are legally in the United States in the state-population totals used for apportioning seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Also, the state of Alabama in 2018 challenged the bureau’s policy of including all residents in the data used for apportioning U.S. House seats and Electoral College votes.
If you would like more information on the census, please join us on Sept. 18 when NCSL will host a 2020 census update. The discussions will focus on the latest census news and what it means for states.
Christi Zamarripa is a policy associate with NCSL’s Elections and Redistricting Program.
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