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We Count! The 2020 Census

Like many readers of this blog, I’m a statistician who works with Census Bureau data to answer policy questions. So I’ve been following the controversy surrounding the added citizenship question.

Andy thought I should write an article for a wider audience, so I published a short piece in The Indypendent. But much more discussion could happen here:

  1. How are citizenship data used in Voting Rights Act cases? For redistricting cases, American Community Survey citizenship data are either imprecise (1 year only) or out-of-date (aggregated over time).
  2. Should we use administrative data? How? 2020 will be the first census to use administrative data for nonresponse follow-up.
  3. Should we adjust for undercount? How? In 1999, the Supreme Court ruled against using adjusted counts for apportionment. See some of Andy’s thoughts here.

Whole books have been written on census politics. Given the stakes, it deserves our attention.



  1. Congressman Meng is correct. However weren’t most of the Japanese interned American citizens? If so this question can also be cast more broadly in the context of our foreign policies/actions; whereby the focus is on which countries we conduct military operations. Surveillance as some civil libertarians posit, has become the overarching paradigm of our era. And so the census can be perceived to be one instrument of several types of surveillance that kick in wartime, notwithstanding the concomitant issue of ‘undercount’ in allocation of federal funding.

    • shira says:

      Yes, at least according to Wikipedia (I haven’t checked primary sources), 62% of internees were US citizens ( I’m not sure if this matters though? I’m against internment whether citizens or not.

      I think that the census, as with almost all data, can be used for helpful or harmful purpose. Having citizenship information could be used for helpful purposes, e.g. to see which areas need most assistance from immigration lawyers.

      • Shira,

        I am not sure to what extent the Census was used to facilitate the internment of Japanese. I was suggesting that the Census can be ‘perceived’ as one instrument, in identifying race, ethnicity, nationality,, of the national security prerogatives/laws that have kicked in and will continue kick in while we are conducting military missions abroad > in Muslim countries.

        The point that Congressman Meng is highlighting had particular relevance in the aftermath 9-11 when some groups were heralding an internment of Muslims in the US. The extent of fear was rampant. Congressmeng Meng is implying the inherently vulnerable status of immigrant non citizens and citizens.
        To suggest that citizenship does not matter and yet suggest that it can be used for helpful or harmful purposes is a contradiction in terms b/c the securitization of nearly every aspect of our lives has also led to privacy breaches. I hate to call up ‘Orwell’ it’s so cliched. But it is a persuasive cliche

  2. Wessman says:

    Surveillance ?

    Government tracks most aspects of our lives down to the content of our phone calls, internet communications, and financial transactions — yet they have difficulty with a simple head count ??

  3. Steve Sailer says:

    There’s a major issue with how the current system of not redistricting House seats based on enumeration of citizens but on residents means that some voters’ votes count much less than other voters’ votes.

    For example in 2016, in the race in California’s 33rd CD, in which Ted Lieu (D-Westwood) was re-elected, 300,000 votes were cast. But in the 34th CD, Xaviera Becerra (D-Boyle Heights) was re-elected in a race in which only 159,000 votes were cast.

    In the off-year, the ratio was even bigger: 183,000 to 62,000 votes.

    As Judge Posner observed, “The dignity and very concept of citizenship are diluted if non-citizens are allowed to vote either directly or by the conferral of additional voting power on citizens believed to have a community of interest with the non-citizens.”

    • Andrew says:


      Sounds like this judge would like an amendment to the constitution. As written in the constitution, representation depends on the number of people, not the number of voters or the number of citizens. To me, it seems like a stretch to say that representation based on the number of people is a dilution of the dignity of citizenship. That said, I don’t really have any idea what is meant by “the dignity and very concept of citizenship,” or what is meant by diluting this.

      • Andrew,

        I would have made the same observation you posted. What exactly do we mean by the ‘dilution’ of the concept of citizenship?

      • Chris says:

        What about state assemblies? From the Nebraska State Constitution Article III-5: “The basis of apportionment shall be the population excluding aliens, as shown by the next preceding federal census.” Nebraska hasn’t actually followed its constitution since the citizenship question was removed from the federal census. Are other states in this position?

  4. Wessman says:

    Slaves were counted in the first U.S. Census (1790, until 1860) and their numbers officially used to calculate Congressional representation
    (Three-Fifths Compromise). So it hardly seems far fetched to include all U.S. residents in the Census, with their true status.

    U.S. population was about 4 million in 1790 with very limited mobility — personal “enumeration” was achievable then, even on horseback. Times have changed. Archaic Census procedures based on the single 18th Century term “enumeration” seem silly today — we merely need an accurate count of full time “residents”, but surely a measure of residents-who-can-legally-vote is fundamental to our system of government and nation-state.

    (P.S. what’s the typical all-source margin of error in our U.S. national elections vote counts ?)

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