As the 2020 census catastrophe draws closer, it isn't getting any better

The Constitution requires the government to undertake a census every ten years, and the results of this census are key to everything from drawing up electoral maps to allocating funding to deciding on zoning: what you measure, you treasure.

So it was alarming when, last May, we learned that the Trump administration was bungling the census (perhaps deliberately, as a way of preserving the illegitimate advantage the Republican party has attained through gerrymandering).

The 2020 census represents a huge shift in the way that Americans are counted: it will be the first "internet census," using a bunch of untested and potentially insecure and underperforming tools, none of which have been adequately reviewed and tested.

In testimony to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Vanita Gupta, president & CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights lays out the kinds of people who won't be counted if the census is bungled — poor people, rural people, brown people, indigenous people. As funding for the census is slashed, these people will be systematically undercounted — and thus underrepresented. A nation that doesn't understand its own makeup is a nation hamstrung by its own ignorance, and this fact is so obvious and true that the framers put it in the country's founding document.

These current and anticipated budget constraints are taking a toll on rigorous 2020 Census preparations. In addition to the cancellation of two of three planned sites for the 2018 End-to-End Test mentioned earlier (a dry run of all census operations that integrates all operations and IT systems for the first time), the Census Bureau eliminated the advertising campaign and Partnership Program for the 2018 dress rehearsal. Development of the full advertising campaign and Partnership Program, which helps keep costs down by boosting self-response and increase accuracy by targeting messages to historically hard-to-count communities, is well behind schedule. The original FY 2018 budget request did not include any funding for partnership specialists, who help state and local officials and trusted community leaders support census operations through focused outreach and promotion for their constituencies. In addition, uncertainties about funding have forced the bureau to "pause" planning for the Census Coverage Measurement program, which produces undercount and overcount estimates and tells us how accurate the census is. The Census Bureau will not test this operation in the 2018 dress rehearsal as originally planned.

Simply put, the Census Bureau needs a steady ramp-up in funding to support a critical dress rehearsal, deployment of the IT architecture and field infrastructure, and development of a massive communications campaign that will encourage people to participate and, therefore, help keep census costs in check. We support the proposal in Rep. Carolyn Maloney's new bill, to allocate roughly $1.9 billion for the Census Bureau in FY 2018. The additional funding will help the bureau meet growing costs for the data collection and processing system; restore advertising and partnership activities to the 2018 End-to-End Census Test in Providence County, RI; assess and implement modified census plans for communities in Texas, Florida, and other states hit hard by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, as well as for Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands; put development of the Integrated Partnership and Communications program back on track; and possibly plan a smaller, focused test of census operations in rural communities in advance of the 2020 Census.

As this committee knows, the Census Bureau will conduct the first "high-tech" census in 2020. The Internet response option could help keep census costs in check by increasing initial response rates, or at least holding them steady compared to 2010, thereby saving resources that can be used to find and enumerate the hardest to count. Congress must remember, however, that Internet response is not a silver bullet. The fact is, not everyone has the same connectivity, security, and comfort with the Internet. The Commerce Department's own analyses show that communities of color, rural residents, adults with low educational attainment, low income individuals, people with disabilities, and older Americans lag behind younger, affluent, highly educated, urban, and White adults in both device and Internet penetration. An Internet response option, while offering the promise of cost savings, could lead to poor or uneven participation, technological infrastructure failings, or both, thereby increasing the differential undercount. A lower-than-projected Internet response rate could strain the Bureau's already limited resources by increasing response by paper questionnaire or telephone or, more worrisome, the number of households that require door-to-door follow-up.

Technology also brings cybersecurity threats, real or perceived. The security of the 2020 Census IT systems and personal census data is paramount, and the Census Bureau and its federal and private sector partners must do everything possible to ensure that security. This means there must be a comprehensive back-up plan to address any potential breaches and their consequences for the census process in real time. At the same time, the Census Bureau must have an effective communications plan to assure everyone in the United States that their personal information is secure – in other words, to build confidence in a high-tech census at a time when many people are wary. Lack of confidence in data security could depress Internet response rates (more so if a large business or another government agency suffers a cyber-attack near the time of the census), thus increasing costs and enumeration challenges considerably.

Statement of Vanita Gupta to House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform for Hearing on the 2020 Census

[Vanita Gupta/The Leadership Conference]

(via Kottke)