This editorial appeared in the Los Angeles Times.
In about three months, the federal government will begin gathering data for the census, the enormously complicated national survey required every 10 years by Article 1 of the U.S. Constitution.
It’s a daunting task to count every person living in a nation as large as ours, and after months of roiling controversies over the inclusion of a question about citizenship, foot-dragging by congressional budgeters and the cancellation of crucial field tests, it can only be hoped that the Census Bureau will get the count right. In fact, it must, because an awful lot is riding on it.
The census serves two primary purposes. First, it is used to determine how many seats in Congress each state will have, and to establish boundary lines for congressional and, often, state legislative districts based on population. The number of congressional seats allotted to each state also helps determine how many Electoral College votes the state has in presidential elections.
Second, the federal government uses census data to determine the allocation of federal aid. Nearly $900 billion nationwide is disbursed on the basis of census data.
So census miscounts can have profound effects. And in recent censuses, urban centers where minorities and immigrants tended to cluster have been undercounted. In fact, a census review of its 2010 count estimated that it missed more than 2% of the nation’s black population and 1.5% of the Latino population. At the same time the census tended to overcount white populations.
There are technical uncertainties about the census, too. For the first time, the 2020 census will be conducted mostly online using a system that has only been lightly tested in the field because of budget restraints. Part of the problem, critics say, is that the Census Bureau was slow in working with states and local stakeholders on public awareness campaigns; the delay, they fear, will make it harder to reach members of historically undercounted communities.
To ensure a more accurate count, many states have crafted their own outreach and public information campaigns. California will spend $187 million.
A reliable census is fundamental to America’s representative democracy, and the Trump administration must ensure that the 2020 count is conducted under the highest possible professional standards.