The US census is part of America’s constitutional fabric, made fundamental to our system of self-government in Article I of the Constitution. In establishing the House of Representatives, the Framers provided that representatives “shall be apportioned among the several States.” To apportion seats, they specified a census every 10 years — the “actual enumeration” of “the whole Number of free Persons,” amended after the Civil War to include “the whole number of persons in each State.”
Since 1790, federal census takers have canvassed the nation to count this whole number. George Washington followed that first census closely, determined to maximize the population count of his young nation. In 2020, though, two forces worked to undermine a maximal count: the Trump administration and the coronavirus pandemic.
First, the Trump administration attempted to insert a citizenship question into the census questionnaire, which heightened distrust in some communities. After that was rejected by the Supreme Court, the administration issued an executive order directing the secretary of commerce to exclude estimated numbers of undocumented immigrants from the population count used for apportionment. This was a deliberate effort to shift federal and state representation away from areas with more immigrants toward whiter ones. Finally, to get its malapportionment done, the Trump administration ordered the Census Bureau to cut short counting and skip quality control steps.
The coronavirus pandemic hit just as 2020 Census takers were headed into the field. In March, the bureau postponed the count by months. In April, it asked Congress to delay reporting data to April 2021, four months after its statutory Dec. 31 deadline, to ensure better accuracy. Though the Trump administration sought to countermand this, a federal judge allowed the incoming Biden administration to determine timelines for reporting both apportionment and redistricting data. As it stands, the Census Bureau will deliver population counts to President Biden by April 30 and redistricting data to the states by Sept. 30.
The stakes are high.
The population counts allocate political power in America. The census sets the number of each state’s congressional seats and, because state votes in the Electoral College are based on congressional representation, apportionment also affects presidential elections. This year’s apportionment could result in Rhode Island losing one of its two congressional seats, as population shifts from the Northeast and Midwest to the Southern and Western states — and with it, congressional power and electoral votes for the next decade. In turn, population data within states are used to draw both congressional districts and state legislative districts according to constitutional equal protection standards.
Census data also influences how more than $1.5 trillion in federal aid is distributed to individuals and families, organizations, and state, local, and tribal governments for medical care, social services, housing and nutrition assistance, education, and other support. Any distribution formula based on population will be affected. So will the vast array of government and business planning and academic research that uses demographic information, from public safety planning to political polls — all founded on federal census data.
No census in history faced so many headwinds and course corrections as the 2020 Census. Unfortunately, these anomalies probably will impair data quality. Massachusetts may feel the impact — just before Census Day, on April 1, many college students went home early, raising the possibility of undercounts in Boston, Cambridge, Brookline, Medford, and elsewhere. Similarly, cities experienced drops in population as wealthier residents isolated themselves in vacation homes. The Census Bureau is now reaching out to communities and universities seeking to remedy these potential undercounts.
Massachusetts leaders need to support this ongoing quality control work. The census needs to bring in state demographers to review the count, a quality operation the Trump administration canceled last fall. Looking ahead, governors and mayors should support efforts in Congress to increase funding for the bureau’s annual American Community Survey and Current Population Studies, continuing surveys that can help fill gaps in the 2020 count over the coming years.
I have witnessed how Census Bureau scientists revere their constitutional duty to count everyone in America with the highest standards of integrity and statistical accuracy. America owes them thanks for standing up for this duty despite Trump administration obstacles. And we need to make it possible for them to finish the job.
Cameron F. Kerry is a distinguished visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution. He’s the former acting secretary of the Department of Commerce in the Obama administration.