Since 1790, the United States has engaged in a decennial census of its population. Article I Section 2 Clause 3 of the US Constitutional lays out this requirement:
The actual enumeration shall be made within three years after the first meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent term of ten years, in such manner as they shall by law direct.
The Census is used primarily to apportion the States seats in the House of Representatives and Electoral College. In addition, funding for many Federal programs is based on census data. It is critical to the lives of many communities that their members be counted fairly and completely.
The 2020 census marks the first time in history that the US tally will be conducted primarily on-line. The majority of households will be expected to complete the form capturing size and characteristics of their families or living arrangements on a Census Bureau website. It is a system, however, that is largely untested. A similar attempt in Australia in 2016 encountered serious technical failures.
The Census will officially begin on March 1, 2020 with letters going out to every identified household inviting them to complete the questionnaire on-line or by phone. Door-to-door canvassers will begin their rounds on April 1, 2020.
Introduction of new technology to the census process brings a promise of bringing down operational costs and casting a wider net to ensure fewer people are missed. Towards that end, the Census Bureau (a division of the Department of Commerce) is rolling out three new tools to aid in that effort:
- Block Assessment, Research and Classification Application (BARCA) – uses satellite and aerial imagery to help census workers see how every block in the country has changed over the past decade. This information is used to efficiently build out address lists for every home in the United States before the census begins.
- Response Outreach Area Mapper (ROAM) – a mapping product that’s helping the bureau predict where people are least likely to respond to the census using historical and demographic data. This data can be used to assign on the ground census workers.
- Enterprise Censuses and Surveys Enabling (ECaSE) – an app developed for the iPhone 8 that will individualize a census worker’s canvassing route, taking into account factors such as work availability, most effective times of day to visit a home, and any non-English languages the worker speaks. Not only that, but the app will collect demographic data required for the census, encrypt it and securely send it to the Census Bureau’s central database.
The census will carried out in two phases. The first will be a mail blitz in March to encourage respondents to go online with a unique code to complete the questionnaire. This will be followed in April and beyond by door-to-door canvassing by an army of census takers that will be guided by the ROAM system described above and aided in data collection by ECaSE.
While these tools bring the promise of a more comprehensive census tally several factors should be of concern. Firstly, the census faces a degree of mistrust among immigrant communities over the failed attempt by the Trump Administration to include a question about citizenship status. Despite its removal from the final questionnaire long controversy might have a lasting chilling effect.
Security experts have warned that the Census provides an opportunity for scammers to attack the unsuspecting. While the Census asks no Personally Identifiable Information (PII) such as Social Security number, bank account information, or information about political party affiliation, widespread attention to the dangers of on-line scamming may discourage some from replying. The bureau is planning an extensive advertising campaign but ongoing privacy concerns may spook many.
What is more worrisome, however, is that the technology has been largely untested. A dry run in three communities (urban, rural and tribal) that was scheduled for 2018 was scaled back to a single test in Providence, Rhode Island and it was not a total success even in that limited framework. Concerns about hacking, disinformation and the general security of the system have not been addressed. Given this administration’s lack of a coherent cybersecurity policy, there is serious doubt that the 2020 census will be complete or accurate
- The Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at Georgetown Law School has published a guide to legal and technical issues around the 2020 Census
- The National Association of Latino Elected Officials (NALEO) is taking the lead on ensuring that Latinos, the nation’s second largest population are fully counted
- Libraries will play an outsized role for helping people without access to broadband internet record their responses. The American Library Association (ALA) is preparing to meet this challenge
- RockTheVote! is mobilizing to inform the citizenry about why the Census matters
- The Greenlining Institute envisions a nation where communities of color thrive and race is never a barrier to economic opportunity. The Census provides an opportunity to inform these communities.
Photo by Ryoji Iwata