How to Fix the Census

The census is a cornerstone of American democracy. The number of employees required by the Constitution determines how many seats each state receives in the U.S. House of Representatives, how state and local governments reallocate their districts, and how more than $1.5 trillion in federal funds are allocated each year.

The 2020 census may be over, but the revelations about the threats it faced are as salient as ever. That summer, it was revealed that Trump administration officials had planned to use an untested citizenship question to manipulate not only district redistribution but also the allocation by Congress. This and other cases of executive intervention linked to Covid-19 and chronic underfunding to create a seemingly endless barrage of challenges that threatened the count. Legal and political reforms are crucial to ensure that we do not see a repeat of 2020 in 2030 and beyond.

There are many indications that the 2020 census had problems. The final head count missed 18.8 million people. Six states — both Red and Blue — suffered undercounts of up to 5 percent. And people of color were once again disproportionately undercounted. Black, Hispanic, and Native American populations in particular were missing at unacceptably high rates, with each of their subcounts deteriorating compared to 2010. Meanwhile, overall census response rates have been stalled for decades, costs are rising and the bureau’s reliance on labor-intensive door-to-door contacts is showing its limitations.

Future censuses could not do better. Current law leaves too much leeway for political actors to override the best statistical science and manipulate the census. At the same time, the Census Bureau has too little room to innovate its design and operations to address persistent issues like racially discriminatory undercounting. But a comprehensive new report from the Brennan Center includes 19 proposals to reform census law and census policy to address both the issues that have plagued 2020 and longstanding census challenges.

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The report presents a number of solutions to limit future Presidential interventions. An important first step would be the establishment of the Census Bureau as its own executive agency outside the Department of Commerce, headed by a director with final decision-making authority. Another would be removing the President from the process of allocating seats in the House of Representatives. Instead of having the president report the population figures used for the apportionment to Congress, the legislature should have the director of the Census Bureau do it. Additionally, a ban on premature and untested census additions would bring the public into a more robust, transparent, and participatory process for modifying the census questionnaire. New restrictions on political appointments, transparency mechanisms and whistleblower protections would also help protect the census from interference.

The report also explains how Congress could authorize the Bureau to collect more accurate and fairer data for the many purposes and users of the census. Removing legal restrictions on the Bureau’s data collection methods would give the Bureau the legal flexibility it needs to select the methods that count the nation most accurately and reduce mass undercounting of people of color. Facilitating changes to the way the census questionnaire asks about race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and gender identity would allow the bureau to produce data that better reflects the country’s diversity and better meets the needs of communities. Requiring the bureau to count incarcerated people at their residential addresses, and encouraging bureau and prison officials to work together in fulfilling that mandate, would help support promising government efforts to end prison gerrymandering, an unjust practice of people imprisoned are counted where they are imprisoned than at their homes when the electoral districts are drawn.

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Congress should also consistently pursue oversight of census activities by establishing standing committees or subcommittees on the census. It takes a full decade to plan, fund, study and implement the census. Standing committees with dedicated staff and resources would strengthen Congress’s capacity to address this complex issue, while regular public hearings would provide greater transparency regarding the conduct of the 2020 census, as well as the operational planning of future censuses. Finally, Congress must ensure that the census is fully funded, recognizing that as the census year approaches, the Bureau’s budgetary needs will increase.

Taken together, these and other changes would help rid the Census Bureau of recurring problems it has never addressed head on and enable it to respond more effectively to future problems. The result will be a census that will provide a more accurate picture of our growing and diversifying nation. This is the census our democracy demands and deserves.

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