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OPINION

The 2020 Census: Shaping the future of democracy in the United States

Responses to the census will be kept completely confidential. The law prohibits the Census Bureau from sharing any information that could identify individual respondents with any outside entity including law and immigration enforcement agencies.

A trailer encouraging people to participate in the Census goes by at the Parada del Sol on Feb. 8 in Scottsdale, Ariz.
A trailer encouraging people to participate in the Census goes by at the Parada del Sol on Feb. 8 in Scottsdale, Ariz.Alina Hartounian/Associated Press

The decennial census is one of the cornerstones of our democracy, and it follows that the 2020 Census results will be of great importance to our nation. The Constitution requires that the decennial census be used for reapportioning the Congress of the United States and the Electoral College.

The 2020 Census will also be used for numerous other functions to support good policy-making and economic growth, including:

  • Redrawing congressional and local voting districts.
  • Allocating over $1.5 trillion of federal funds annually
  • Informing sound policy development; providing critical information for state, local, and tribal government planning.
  • Supplying critical information to large and small businesses to generate growth and job creation. Inaccuracies or errors in the 2020 Decennial Census will have grave consequences on these uses for the subsequent 10-year period.
A Census 2020 form.
A Census 2020 form.Gregory Bull/Associated Press

The decennial census has been conducted every 10 years beginning in 1790. The Census Bureau is required by law to conduct an enumeration of all residents of the United States as of April 1 in the census year. The law also requires that the Census Bureau provide the 50 state numbers that will be used to reapportion the House of Representatives to the president of the United States by Dec. 31 of the census year, and to provide the detailed data to support redrawing congressional and all other voting districts to each state by March 31 of the year following the census (for the 2020 Census these dates will be Dec. 31, 2020, and March 31, 2021, respectively).

There are two other important legal considerations regarding the 2020 Census. First, responses to the census will be kept completely confidential. The law prohibits the Census Bureau from sharing any information that could identify individual respondents with any outside entity, including law and immigration enforcement agencies. Census employees also take a lifelong oath to uphold the privacy of all information that the Census Bureau collects. There are strong penalties for violating this oath.

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Secondly, the law requires that responses to the 2020 Census is mandatory. However, the Census Bureau believes that the most effective way to achieve an accurate enumeration is to educate respondents on the importance of the census, and that their responses are completely confidential. It should also be noted that the Census Bureau has no enforcement authorities.

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No census has been perfect; the white non-Hispanic population has been counted more accurately than all other groups. That is, nonwhite and Hispanic populations have been undercounted to a much larger extent. The most effective method the Census Bureau has found to combat this problem started in the 2000 Census and continues for the 2020 Census. The Census Bureau put in place a large paid advertising campaign coupled with deploying a large number of “partnership specialists“ to work at a local level to engage trusted voices to support participation in the census. Two broad messages were communicated: The census is important for your community, and the census is completely confidential (it is safe to respond). As a result, undercounts since 2000 have been dramatically reduced compared with previous censuses.

The 2020 Census will feature fundamental changes from previous censuses, taking advantage of modern technology. For the first time, respondents in most of the United States will be requested to respond over the Internet or via telephone. About 20 percent of households, in areas where the Census Bureau has determined that the Internet is not the best option, will receive a paper questionnaire. Respondents in these areas will have a choice either to mail back the paper questionnaire, call in, or go online to complete their response.

The Census Bureau expects to receive a self-response from about 62.5 percent of households. The 2020 Census will take advantage of mobile technology to collect responses from the nonrespondents. The census workers, referred to as enumerators, assigned to this task will be equipped with smartphones, and their supervisors will use tablets. This will allow for great efficiencies through optimizing enumerator assignments and providing key management information to supervisors. Recent testing has indicated gains in efficiency as large as 30 percent relative to previous censuses.

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The 2020 Census is now underway — it began Jan. 21 in Alaska — but there are potential challenges that must be overcome to achieve a fair and accurate count. First, there are potential lingering effects of the attempt to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census questionnaire that may depress response and cooperation of traditionally hard-to-count populations. There may also be attempts to disrupt the 2020 Census through disinformation campaigns. Finally, the Census Bureau will provide the president with the 50 state numbers, which include all residents regardless of legal or citizenship status, required for reapportioning the seats of the House of Representatives by Dec. 31, 2020. However, it is not clear that the president must submit these numbers to the House of Representatives — or numbers of his choosing.

A fair and accurate 2020 Census is incredibly important for your community, your state, and our democracy.

John Thompson was the director of the US Census Bureau from August 2013 through June 2017.