The writers of Article I Sec. 2 of the Constitution, which mandates a census every ten years, did not have satellite analysis and probabilistic sampling in mind. Neither did they imagine a United States with more than 325 million people spread across the fourth largest country on Earth. But having created a system that ties representation to population, certainly they understood that the seemingly simple question of how to count Americans would be a political battleground.
The results of the U.S. census are far more important than most Americans realize. Census data are the starting point for redistricting and reapportionment – adding and removing House districts from states as population changes dictate – not to mention the distribution of billions of dollars in federal funding. Housing assistance, highway maintenance and Medicare/Medicaid are just three examples of programs that distribute federal dollars to states in the form of grants based on census results. Undercounting populations guarantees that over the next decade, states will be strapped for funding in these areas.
And that is likely to happen if Republicans in Congress get their way. Under cover of the non-stop Trump circus, they are quietly working behind the scenes to ensure that the 2020 census fails – and fails to their advantage.
In its earliest years, census-taking was labor intensive. Census workers walked door-to-door counting heads. The relatively small size of the country and its limited population made this feasible into the 19th century. Explosive population growth after 1850 made this impractical, though, so the mail-and-return census form was added to supplement the work done on foot. As long as sending and receiving mail was part of daily life for most Americans, this worked well.
Which brings us to today. When was the last time you mailed a piece of paper? Your answer to that question might reveal why the census is now hampered by the low response rates on mailed forms. Given the sheer size and density of the population, door-to-door head counting is not a workable solution either. So the Census Bureau has added new tools to its arsenal. It now does Big Data analysis of U.S. Postal Service records, satellite analysis of housing blocks and statistical projection of population in dense areas where it is not practical to find every last resident. These are efforts to overcome a simple and obvious problem: It isn't easy to count every person in a large and populous country.
Ahead of the 2010 census, Republicans expressed skepticism about the Census Bureau's increasing use of statistical methods to estimate population in cities. Taking their usual approach of dismissing as voodoo all things scientific and data-driven, they labeled the bureau's efforts a plot to fabricate liberals out of thin air. Their objections had little effect on that year's census, though, since Democrats controlled Congress from 2006 to 2010 and, of course, the White House after 2008. You'll no doubt be shocked to hear that their complaints died down when it became clear that the 2010 census produced favorable results for Republicans.
This time around, the GOP controls the White House and have House and Senate majorities pending the 2018 midterm elections. The Trump administration and Congress are working to ensure that the Census Bureau is required to do its work the old-fashioned way – counting heads door-to-door, using mail-and-return forms or asking households to respond to an online survey – while simultaneously depriving the bureau of the funding necessary to do so effectively.
If they get their way, and a cash-starved Census Bureau is prevented from supplementing its direct counting methods with the latest technology, the predictable result will be a census based largely on mail-and-return paper forms and voluntary online responses. As we saw in late-20th-century censuses, there will be a serious undercount – one that particularly underrepresents African-Americans and Hispanics.
This can happen because the Census Bureau is now led by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, a Trump crony and former leveraged buyout specialist who infamously struck a deal with Trump Taj Mahal investors allowing Trump to retain control after bankrupting the casino in the early Nineties. The Census Bureau has been without a director since 27-year bureau veteran John Thompson resigned in May over the politically motivated defunding of his department. As with most vacancies under Trump, no replacement has been appointed. An interim director was quietly named in late June, suggesting that the position will remain unfilled.
And it gets worse. Few Americans, even in Congress, realize that the census is a count of population, not of citizens. Every man, woman and child in a given area is counted, whether U.S. citizen, legal resident or undocumented immigrant. Trump-era Immigration and Customs Enforcement crackdowns, though largely fruitless, are highly likely to have a major chilling effect on non-citizens, regardless of legal status. Even under ideal conditions for the Census Bureau, the fear generated by aggressive and well-publicized ICE raids are expected to suppress the counts of Hispanics, immigrant communities and non-U.S. citizens.
It's a deceptively simple scheme: Trump and his commerce secretary impose rules on the Census Bureau based on the belief that science and data analysis are fake news. Congress squeezes the bureau's funding, reducing the quality of the work it can do. ICE threatens non-citizens with deportation to seriously dampen enthusiasm for participating. And then the results of the 2020 census will be based largely on voluntary responses to mail-in and online surveys, giving an incomplete and demographically skewed picture of the U.S. population.
The method for reapportioning seats in the House – and, therefore, in the Electoral College – is sensitive to relatively small changes in state populations. The range of predictions online shows that slightly different estimates produce different results. The last few seats assigned could go to one state or another based on a relative handful of residents. This process doesn't require a heavy hand to influence the outcome.
No one is eager to add yet another item to the list of issues that require attention right now, but efforts to undermine the census rely on the fact that voters and the media won't notice or care. We will live with the political consequences of the 2020 census for a decade. It is imperative we get it right.