This year, the U.S. government will undertake its largest peace-time operation: the decennial census.
The census is an enormous logistical, technological and social challenge that relies on a complex web of experts, community outreach and an enormous hiring effort to conduct a complete headcount of every person living in the United States.
What could possibly go wrong?
The biggest challenge of an accurate census is not counting everyone.
People may not be counted for a wide variety of reasons. Many think their response to the census questionnaire does not matter. Others don’t trust the government with their household information. And some don’t have a home address to receive the form or the internet access to fill it out.
Regardless of the reason, it is the job of every person in America to make sure our family, friends and neighbors have all the information about why the census is important and why their response makes a difference. The consequences of an inaccurate count are serious and will last for the next decade.
Census results are used to divide up $1.5 trillion in federal funding for resources like firetrucks, roads and bridges. Without an accurate count, communities may not receive the vital resources that they need to ensure a high quality of life for everyone.
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Businesses and nonprofits also use census data to decide where best to create jobs and provide services. An inaccurate census undermines this decision-making process and impedes economic and social growth in our communities.
Census data are used to decide how many representatives each state gets in the U.S. House of Representatives and where we draw the electoral boundaries for those congressional and state legislative districts. An undercount translates to taxation without representation — and that’s a serious problem.
Some people are afraid that if they report their age, race, ethnicity, relationship status and home address to the federal government, the data will be used against them. For many, these fears intensified during the failed attempt to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census questionnaire. The census is a time for unity, a time that our Founding Fathers decided everyone, citizen and non-citizens alike, should count once and only once in the place where they live.
That is why Congress passed a law to maintain the privacy of census responses. The Census Bureau, courts and civic groups have been dogged in enforcing these protections. Once someone provides information to the Census Bureau — whether by filling out the census online, on a paper form, or by answering questions from a census canvasser — it is only used to produce statistics. A second challenge is fighting the spread of false information or interference with the census. The 2016 presidential election taught us that the risk of foreign and domestic interference in our democracy is real and cannot be overestimated.
A number of tech companies, including Facebook and Twitter, have committed to removing disinformation about the census from their platforms. A network of organizations and activists, alongside many local and state governments, have committed to spreading accurate information about the census using traditional and social media, along with person-to-person interaction.
Finally, the census is an enormous logistical and technological undertaking. This year, for the first time, the majority of census data collection will be done using an online portal. In addition to posing challenges for people who do not have easy access to the internet, this will be new technology that has not been tested in a previous census.
Experts have already raised alarms about the portal crashing or coming under cyberattack. Fortunately, the alarms were raised prior to the start of the enumeration in March, and the Census Bureau is building redundancies into their systems before they start asking every household in the United States to respond.
So, what could go wrong with the 2020 Census? Plenty. The stakes are incredibly high.
To succeed at counting everyone, we need to spread the message of the vital importance of achieving an accurate count and consider the census as something we are all responsible for getting right.
Suzanne Almeida is redistricting and representation counsel at Common Cause. She wrote this for InsideSources.com.