Gutting the census would sabotage democracy

Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross.
Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross.Paul Morigi/Getty Images for Dentons

The Supreme Court is considering whether to outlaw partisan gerrymandering, the devious practice that unfairly draws redistricting lines and distorts elections. But there’s an even easier way to sabotage democracy: Gut the US Census.

Every 10 years the government undertakes the huge logistical task of counting as many Americans as possible: who they are, and — just as important — where they are. The count is mandated in the US Constitution because it is the raw material of representative democracy: the basis for how congressional districts are drawn and redrawn as populations shift. Every census is beset by claims of miscounts and omissions; even George Washington complained that the 1790 Census undercounted the country’s total population. But the 2020 Census is already so short of cash, and so far behind its usual deadlines, that even hardened experts say a national debacle is within the realm of possibility.


Budget constraints imposed by Congress have forced the Census Bureau to close local offices, plan to hire fewer “enumerators,” who contact hard-to-find citizens, and cancel field tests of new techniques and systems. This is especially worrisome because for the first time, in 2020, the Census Bureau wants to conduct at least half the count online. It’s a delicate undertaking to devise a computer system that is accessible enough to be used by average Americans but also secured against hacking. Cyber threats both real and imagined are expected to depress the response rate in 2020, which is also, lest we forget, a presidential election year.

Aggravating the issue is steadily eroding public trust in government expertise, fueled in no small part by President Trump, who is quick to denounce numbers he doesn’t like. A few well-placed Tweets dissing the “rigged” census could become a self-fulfilling prophesy. Terri Ann Lowenthal, former staff director of the congressional subcommittee that oversees the census, is among the worried. “If the president publicly questions the integrity of the count,” said Lowenthal, who has worked for both Democrats and Republicans, “it could undermine confidence, depress response rates, and derail the entire census process.”


Oh, and did I mention that the US Census Bureau director’s job has been vacant since June, when John Thompson, a 31-year veteran of the bureau, abruptly resigned — and that there’s no replacement in sight?

Earlier this month the NAACP sued to pry information from the US Department of Commerce on how the Census Bureau, which it oversees, plans to ensure that the 2020 count is complete. The NAACP has an obvious concern, since the groups most often undercounted are minorities and the poor. Immigrants, especially, may be reluctant to answer questions from the federal government in the current climate of deportation raids and presidential invective.

One hopeful spot — surprising to some — is Trump’s commerce secretary, Wilbur Ross. When he was a business student at Harvard years ago, Ross worked as a census enumerator, and he has spoken fondly about collecting data in what was then Scollay Square. Ross testified before Congress Thursday to outline the dire circumstances facing the census and to ask for more than Trump and Congress had budgeted: $15.6 billion in all. But it’s unclear whether Republicans controlling the purse strings will be persuaded.

After all, a less-than robust census could please three groups of Republicans: fiscal hawks who oppose government spending; libertarians who are hostile to government snooping; and partisans who figure that most citizens missed by undercounts are Democrats anyway.


But a meltdown at the Census Bureau wouldn’t be just ordinary Trump administration disarray. Some $675 billion a year in highway construction, energy assistance, health care, and food assistance funds — all allocated based on census data — is at stake. Not to mention a functioning democracy.

Renée Loth's column appears regularly in the Globe.