Your questions about the 2020 Census, answered

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The U.S. Census Bureau is scheduled to share its once-in-a-decade update of state population totals Monday and use those figures to reallocate the number of House seats and electoral college votes that each state gets. It is the first release of data from the 2020 Census, with more to come later this year.

Here are the top questions readers are asking about the census:

— How will the 2020 Census affect representation in my state?

The number of seats in the House of Representatives – currently 435 – is set by law. The number of House seats allocated to each state is adjusted every 10 years based on the decennial census’s updated state population totals. Some states gain seats, some lose them. Population growth is no guarantee a state will gain seat if other states added more residents. Each state gets at least one representative, regardless of population size.

— Will my state use the 2020 Census for redistricting?

That will depend on a number of factors this year. Each state has its own laws and timelines for redistricting. The release of 2020 Census redistricting data has been delayed because of the pandemic. Instead of being released in April, as it has in the past, redistricting data is scheduled to be released in late summer, which is past the legally mandated deadline for redistricting in some states. There are also questions about the data’s quality because of the rush to finish the count last fall andthe Census Bureau’s plans to use differential privacy, which is a way to share a massive data set while protecting the privacy of individuals. This is the first decennial census that the agency plans to implementdifferential privacy, and it is expected to explain how it plans to handle that closer to June. Sixteen states have joined a lawsuit filed by Alabama against the Census Bureau, challenging the bureau’s plans to use differential privacy.

— Are there still concerns about undercounts of minority populations in this Census, given that such undercounts have been a chronic problem with Census counts?

Yes. The count ended in mid-October, two weeks earlier than the Census Bureau had planned after the Supreme Court upheld a Trump administration order moving up the end date. The president wanted the numbers sooner as part of a push to exclude undocumented immigrants from apportionment before he left office. Some census enumerators reported that supervisors ordered them to cut corners or falsify data to meet the target threshold of 99 percent households counted. The bureau denied that it systematically falsified records. Minority populations are traditionally harder to count, as are low-income people, renters, children, and immigrants.

— Why were the results of the Census delayed?

The coronavirus pandemic froze the count just as it was getting started, leading the bureau to request a several months delay to conduct and analyze the census. Congress did not move on the request, and the bureau reverted to its original schedule after Trump announced he wanted to exclude undocumented immigrants from apportionment. In ensuing legal battles, the end date was in flux, causing confusion among enumerators and their supervisors as they tried to complete the count.

— What happened to the citizenship question?

Soon after President Donald Trump took office in 2017, administration officials began discussing adding a citizenship question to the census, and they officially announced it in 2018.

Civil rights groups and experts inside and outside the bureau warned the question would probably depress the count in immigrant communities and lead to an inaccurate count, and multiple lawsuits challenged it. The Supreme Court blocked it in 2019, though Trump ordered federal agencies to provide the bureau with citizenship information anyway. That effort ultimately failed – experts say it is impossible to ascertain how many undocumented immigrants reside in each state- and President Biden officially ended the effort shortly after he was sworn in.

— Can we redo the Census? Why wouldn’t the government redo it after the problems it had during collection?

Yes, Congress can ask for a do-over. But it’s a massive undertaking that takes years of planning. It is also a costly one. The price tag for the 2020 Census is around $16 billion.

— Is the Census going to be more inaccurate this year than it was before? Can we even consider the results of this Census to be valid?

This is an open question, although there will be different ways of assessing the quality of the data once the numbers come out. Census officials and outside experts will compare them to projections and other sources. The bureau also conducts its own quality reviews, including going back to some of the households they counted and double-checking their work.

For the first time, the agency will also publish several operational metrics when it releases the data, including how the bureau counted a household (or an address, if vacant) – through self-response, in-person or proxy interview, or using administrative records, for example – and how those methods were distributed across geographic areas.

In another first, the bureau has let in the American Statistical Association to conduct its own review of census operations. The ASA will be releasing reports on the quality of the decennial census data throughout the year.

— Can states challenge their apportionment results?

Yes. In the modern era, states have challenged their loss of a House seat or failure to gain one in court, but without success. In 2001 the state of Utah sued the government, saying its refusal to count Mormon missionaries living abroad cost Utah the chance to add a House seat after the 2000 Census. The seat, which Utah missed gaining by just 857 people, went instead to North Carolina. The Supreme Court upheld the bureau’s actions, and similar challenges in the past have been unsuccessful.

This year, concerns about the quality of the census may make it more likely for a state that fell just short of keeping or adding a seat to challenge the results.

Congress could always increase the number of House seats but is unlikely to do so any time soon.



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