The decennial national census is less than a year away. As the debate continues over the Trump administration’s wish to include a question about citizenship in the 2020 questionnaire, we note the importance of filling out the forms, whether the question is included or not.
The U.S. Constitution requires that a census be taken every 10 years, primarily to ensure equal representation in Congress. After the enumeration, congressional and state legislative districts are redrawn in order to have roughly equal numbers of people in each district. That way every resident theoretically has the same voice in the halls of government as any other. In areas where large numbers of people ignore the census, the undercount will result in a larger population in that district, diluting the influence of each.
That representation affects legislative decisions that include the allocation of government funds, party representation in voting districts and even the makeup of the Electoral College, which formally selects our president, among other issues.
Thus, it’s important to achieve the most accurate count possible.
The census form changes every decade.
Some years have featured a standard short form sent to most residents and a long form sent to about 16 percent of the population. The standard form hasn’t asked about citizenship since 1950; some long forms have, or asked about place of birth without asking about legal status. Still, many residents have declined to fill out the form for fears that the data might be used to conduct immigration roundups.
Cameron and Hidalgo counties, among others, have filed lawsuits in the past over census undercounts. A federal judge in January ordered that the government remove the citizenship question from the 2020 form — not because of the legality of the question itself but because the government was deceptive in trying to justify it.
The administration is expected to appeal, and plans to keep the question in sample forms that will be sent to local census centers this summer.
The Census Bureau’s own research concludes that including the question would lower the response rate and raise costs due to visits to households that didn’t send in the forms.
Acting Census Director Ron Jarmin testified before Congress last April and was directly asked if people who left the citizenship question blank would be counted. He assured lawmakers that they would.
“We process many surveys with incomplete responses,” Jarmin testified. “The census (was) certainly one of those in the past; it will be in the future.”
Federal law prohibits the Census Bureau from sharing its information with anyone else, including other federal agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security.
And although the law provides that refusal to answer or providing false answers to any question could result in a fine, it most likely would only prompt a call or visit from a census worker.
Some people have called for a total boycott of the census if the citizenship question is included. Theoretically, however, any repercussions would be the same whether people leave the one question unanswered or if they don’t fill out the form at all.
The benefits of the most accurate count possible outweigh any political statement that is made from a total boycott. Until the actual count commences, Americans should continue to lobby for the question to be kept off the forms, but plan to complete them regardless.