Could Going Digital Compromise the Census?

Preparation for the 2020 Census has swung into high gear, but some advocates are worried about the integrity of a population count that’s as old as the United States.

There’s a lot at stake in the census, including the fate of redistricting, allocating federal funds, and a number of other important activities that are pegged to population. Getting it wrong could have a ripple effect that lasts for decades, one reason the census has strived to be nonpartisan — but in 2020, that could change.

You may be aware of one big area of concern with the census: the citizenship question the Trump administration wants to add.

While a court has blocked it, appeals are pending, and advocates fear that asking about citizenship may deter participation from some communities – particularly immigrants, who have a right to be counted along with everyone else.

The census isn’t about how many citizens are living in the U.S.; it’s about the total number of people living here. And while census data is confidential and kept sealed, those assurances may not be effective for individuals who have been given no reason to trust the government.

But there’s another issue: The census wants to go digital.

On the surface, this might make sense — after all, it could streamline data collection and make it much easier to classify data rapidly. However, not everyone has access to the internet or the technological literacy needed to use it.

The U.S. Census Bureau is addressing those challenges by distributing paper forms in some communities, as well as following up on non-responsive households with personnel who will use handheld electronic devices to enter their data. Census Bureau officials are extremely serious about counting everyone, as you will learn if you try to dodge the form: They WILL knock on your door!

The other issue, according to the Washington Postis that there are significant cybersecurity risks behind choosing to digitize the census.

The United States has had some problems with cybersecurity in the past, including on sensitive government systems, and the census is working very fast at a very large scale — a recipe for disaster.

Government websites don’t always have a great performance record — healthcare.gov, anyone? — and that’s especially problematic when we’re talking about a nationwide event that has a tremendous bearing on our democracy.

It’s imperative to collect this information safely and securely, and while the Census Bureau claims to be working on the issue, it’s legitimate to raise some questions around how the process will be secured, especially since the Government Accountability Office has highlighted a number of shortcomings that need to be addressed.

Individuals can contact their lawmakers to encourage them to press the Census Bureau on this issue, but when it comes to filling out paperwork, you don’t have a lot of options. If you’re in an area that receives paper forms, you can fill them out and return them as directed. But if you’re in a digitally-served area and you decline to fill out the forms online, someone will be visiting your house anyway — and they’ll be bringing a digital device.

In advance of the 2020 Census, it’s a good idea to get official information from the source, Census.gov, which will include details about how to confirm that paperwork and websites are the real deal, and how to submit information securely.

If you spot misinformation about the census on social media, including from the accounts of key government officials, make sure to push back and to guide people to accurate information available directly from the Census Bureau. Additionally, local census officials will be setting up regional offices and reaching out to communities with more information soon.

Photo Credit: Getty Images

34 comments

Dan Blossfeld
Dan Blossfeld3 days ago

The citizen question is highly political. Estimates are that the inclusions of non-citizens in the census has resulted in nine seats to be reapportioned. The following states were each deprived of one Congressional seat: IN, KY, MI, MS, MT, OK, PA, UT, and WI. Of those seats, six were assigned to CA, while one each went to FL, NY, and TX. All in all, blue states gained five seats, while red states lost 5 (assuming that FL and WI are neither). Alabama has already filed suit against the census bureau, as it feels that it will be on the short end after the 2020 census.

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Jenn C
Jenn C4 days ago

"To err is human. To *really louse things up you need a computer."

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Paul B
Paul B4 days ago

In these days of such strong pl;itical divide and people willing to cheat and do whatever to advance their political cause, I don't trust any of it, the collection, the entry, the tallying, none of it. Too many people have abandoned truth and what right, for what they want. Just look at all the voter registration manipulation by people registering voters. That was for an election, just think what they could do with a simple census. It does matter... a lot.

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Paul B
Paul B4 days ago

NO online. Yes citizenship question.
I agree that everyone should be counted for allocation of federal funding.... but ONLY citizens should count towards allocation of congressional seats. This is why they are asking the question. CA, IL, NY with likely over a million non-citizens each should not get any extra congressional seats versus say IA or MT that likely have a much lower number of non-citizens. Congress is supposed to represent voting base, not total population. It's hard to argue against the citizenship question when the importance of seat allocation is at stake.

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Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara4 days ago

Nothing wrong with knowing where the people in your country come from. Good people are welcome anywhere. If they apply for citizenship they will have to say where they come from.

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Debbi W
Debbi W5 days ago

The count will be more accurate with people interviewing people, talking them into giving their info. There are probably a million people living off of the grid who would NOT do the census online, but can be talked into it by a person. NO online census, besides, there is a huge security issue.

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Dr. Jan H
Dr. Jan Hill5 days ago

thanks

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Anne M
Anne Moran5 days ago

What's the big deal about asking people where they were born/citizenship ?? - So many of us come from elsewhere, don't have to be a Muslim,, you can be English, Italian, French, Scottish, Irish, Danish, German, African, etc... - Be proud of where you come from..

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Alea C
Alea C5 days ago

Digital voting machines can be easily hacked, so I can say with a fair amount of confidence that the census report can be too.

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Pam B
Pam Bruce5 days ago

Going digital is all wrong. Put people out there to count us. Don't expect people to use computers or fill out more paper forms. This upcoming census will no doubt find fewer people. People are just tired of all the BS going on this Nation.

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