Diary

In a Chaotic Year, Delaying Census Reporting Is Common Sense 

FILE - In this July 16, 2018, file photo, Department of Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross speaks to employees of the Department of Commerce in Washington. The Supreme Court is allowing a trial over the decision to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census to go forward over the Trump administration’s objection. The justices’ issued a brief order Friday, Nov. 2, rejecting the administration’s request to postpone the trial, set to begin Monday in New York.(AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, File)

With just a couple of weeks to go until November 3rd, national attention is fixated squarely on the upcoming presidential election and its consequences. While the debate over who is best fit to occupy the Oval Office rages on, however, we must not overlook an issue that has been overshadowed lately, which is the 2020 Census, something that will have a direct effect on our elections and funding for our communities for the next ten years.

Throughout this year, Census officials were hard at work collecting responses from around the nation in order to ensure that the final count accurately reflected the makeup of our nation. It’s an important task that will decide how seats in the House of Representatives are distributed to each state and how vital tax dollars are apportioned, as well. In much the same way that this year has made every other facet of public life more challenging than normal, though, the COVID-19 pandemic has created new wrinkles in the process of gathering Census responses.

This may not seem to be the case when one notices that every state is reported to have 99.9 percent enumeration rates on the official Census website, but the truth is that the COVID-19 pandemic – and now forest fires and hurricanes – made many core Census processes much more strenuous than in years past. Nonresponse follow-up practices, as they are called, were made challenging, which could potentially affect the accuracy of this year’s Census.

In a normal year, this sort of standard follow up involves Census workers visiting those who have not responded to the Census in order to obtain the information they need. However, with concerns about the pandemic and natural disasters looming large, this was more challenging for Census officials this year, especially when collecting responses from states with large, difficult-to-reach rural populations. In the case that Census workers cannot get into touch with someone as part of their follow up work, they need to rely on information based on  potentially outdated government records. Naturally, using those for large percentages of Census reports could affect the accuracy of the results.

 

If the Census results are inaccurate and rural, traditionally conservative states are undercounted, the consequences could be dire. Since the Census determines how many House seats a state receives, an undercount as a result of inaccurate data – as is a very real risk in some rural states – means they will have fewer voices speaking on their behalf in the federal government. Those seats will instead go to states with larger populations and more accurate counts, most likely coastal liberal states.

 

Of course, that would not be the only consequence if results are inaccurate and states are undercounted. Federal funding that is used to fix roads, improve education, and invest in health care will be diverted to other states, something that poses an even larger risk to rural states in the southeastern part of the nation that have borne the brunt of tropical storms and hurricanes in recent years. Beyond that, COVID-19 relief funds will be distributed based on Census data, meaning an undercount could be disastrous for states that are struggling.

That is why, in order to ensure that the responses that have been collected accurately reflect our nation’s population, Congress should pass legislation to delay the Census reporting deadline. Right now, it is set for December 31, which would give Census officials half the time they have to report responses in any other Census year. That is simply not enough time. Instead, lawmakers must back legislation supported by conservative leaders like Senators Dan Sullivan (R-AK), Steve Daines (R-MT), and David Perdue (R-GA) to delay the reporting deadline.

The Census is essential for guaranteeing that each state is on level footing for the decade ahead. If any state is undercounted, its long-term stability is threatened both politically and financially, directly affecting millions. The right path forward is to realize the gravity of the situation and allow Census officials proper time to get this right.

Katlyn Batts is a former employee of the Jesse Helms Center.