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Threats Continue to an Accurate and Fair 2020 Census

FRIDAY, DEC 04, 2020

The 2020 Census faces multiple threats. Its success is jeopardized by the current administration; the difficulties of collecting data in the middle of a pandemic; attempts to shorten the data collection period and the time required to assess the quality; and plans to make it purposely inaccurate in the name of protecting the privacy of respondents. 

The decennial Census has three primary roles. It’s used to allocate political power by providing the population counts needed for the redistricting of all legislative districts in the U.S. from Congress down to local city and town council districts and school board districts, and to provide population data to allocate the number of congressional seats among the states. It’s used to allocate roughly $1.5 trillion of federal tax money annually. And finally, it’s used as the benchmark for virtually all other private and public surveys that seek to analyze the demographics of the United States.

Since taking office, the Trump administration has tried to re-shape the Census into a partisan tool that benefits Republicans. Its attempted changes would come at the expense of Hispanics, African- Americans, non-citizens, children, and undocumented immigrants. In one of its most-high profile attempts to alter the Census, a Republican redistricting expert acknowledged that changing districts to only include citizens of voting age “would be advantageous to Republicans and non-Hispanic whites.” Although the proposal was blocked by the Supreme Court, the administration is still asking the high court to break with more than 200 years of precedent and allow it to exclude undocumented immigrants from the final headcount.  It’s also considering obtaining the citizenship data by using administrative records, which may not be feasible.


Other methods were attempted to suppress the number of people in groups considered more likely to vote for Democratic candidates, including using the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse to shut down the count earlier than planned. The truncated time frame would lead to less time available to find and count the “hard to count,” decreasing the period required to verify data quality from 26 weeks to 11 weeks. Finally, the Census is attempting to adopt a new method of so-called disclosure avoidance, which at this writing distorts data in such a way that redistricting may be compromised. Many other uses of the Census may be threatened, including the allocation of funds and the computation of mortality rates by age, sex, and race or Hispanic group.

A Dec. 3 hearing by the House Committee on Oversight and Reform assessed some of  these issues. Robert Santos, President of the American Statistical Association; Joe Salvo, Chief Demographer for New York City, and J. Christopher Minh all called for transparency regarding the quality of the Census data, which the Government Accountability Office said should be shared in “near real time.”  The Census Bureau and Commerce Department currently refuses to share materials regarding problems discovered that most likely will  delay the Census release beyond the Jan. 20 inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden; Rep. Carolyn Maloney, a New York Democrat who leads the panel, is demanding the Trump administration provide those materials by Dec. 9.

Social Explorer, along with representatives from approximately 100 groups, is working with the Berck Center at Georgetown to assure the quality, representativeness, and fairness of the 2020 Census.   

Author: Andy Beveridge


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