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In The Public Interest: Preparing For The Upcoming Census And What You Need To Know

U.S. Census
Wikipedia Media Commons

In this week's edition of "In The Public Interest," our bi-weekly conversation with the League of Women Voters of the Ann Arbor area, 89.1 WEMU's Lisa Barry talks with league member, attorney Margaret Leary about the upcoming 2020 census and some controversy surrounding that.

About the Issue

This segment’s topic is raising citizen awareness of the 2020 census.  Democracy depends on the census.  The census is essential to determine the number of Michigan’s Congressional representatives, to provide demographic information for drawing legislative district lines, and to gather population information used to distribute billions of dollars of federal, state, and local aid to Michigan.  This is the first of several segments about the 2020 Census and gives a brief history of the Census, what it is, and why it is important.  The LWV will provide educational programs about the Census later this year.

About the Guest

Margaret Leary
Credit Lisa Barry / 89.1 WEMU
89.1 WEMU
Margaret Leary visits the WEMU Studio.

Margaret Leary joined the League in 2015 and became active in 2017, when she agreed to be the Redistricting Education Coordinator for the Ann Arbor Area, and added programs on the three Statewide Ballot Proposals.  The LWVAAA provided programs to about 2,000 people.  Contact http://lwvannarbor.org/

Margaret, a lawyer and librarian, is retired from her position as director of the University Michigan Law Library.  She has served on the City of Ann Arbor Planning Commission and served three terms as an elected trustee of the Ann Arbor District Library.

Let’s state with a basic question: What is the census?
The census is a careful and thorough count, every ten years, of every person residing in the U.S., whether citizen or non-citizen, and whether living here with legal status or without. 

The census determines the allocation of Congressional seats, billions of dollars of government aid, and gathers demographic data used for many other reasons.
What is the origin of the Census, and what is its purpose?

The census is required by Article I of the Constitution--the section that establishes Congress.  It provides that “Representatives shall be apportioned among the several states according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each State.”  It mandates an “actual enumeration….every ten years” as Congress directs by law.

The count is used to apportion the 435 Representatives among the states, and to draw political districts and allocate power within them at the state and local levels.
Are there other uses for Census information?

Yes, there are two other major uses.

1. The count is also used to allocate hundreds of billions of dollars in
federal, state, and local funds.  In FY2015, Michigan received 14.5 BILLION dollars just from the 16 largest federal assistance programs.  The top four such programs in Michigan were:

2. The decennial census--since it began in 1790--collects demographic data about the population of the U.S.: race, sex, age, and whether they own or rent their homes.  Over the years, questions have varied slightly and included years of education, able to read/write, hours worked, ownership of a car, or a radio, and citizenship. 
The decennial census is also supplemented by other counts, but for now. I’d like to stick to the decennial census.

How important is the census - why should individuals take the time to respond?
Given the stakes, the interest in a COMPLETE and ACCURATE count is immense.  Even small deviations from a complete and accurate count can have major implications for states, localities, and the people who live in them.  In short, for the country as a whole needs a complete, accurate count.

You briefly mentioned “citizenship.”  Isn’t there a current controversy over adding a “citizenship” question to the 2020 census?

Yes, there is a huge controversy.  The Commerce Dept, which administers the census, wants to add a citizenship question.  There are suits in federal courts in NY, CA, and MD, filed by governmental and non-governmental groups against the Commerce Department.  The one in the SD NY was decided last week in favor of the plaintiffs.

The Constitution does not mandate a citizenship question, but the government asked about it in every census between 1820 and 1950 except for 1840.  The question was dropped b/c the Census Bureau felt it would depress the count for already “hard to count” groups, especially non-citizens and Hispanics, who would be likely to fear the information would be used against them or their loved ones.  Every Sec of Commerce (to whom Congress has long delegated significant authority over the census) kept that position until early last year, when Wilbur Ross announced he would reinstate the question.  He claimed it was needed for the Dept of Justice to enforce the Voting Rights Act.  (Only citizens may register to vote).  This claim appears to have been false.
You said the SDNY case was decided for the plaintiffs. Why, and what does that mean?

Yes, the SDNY found for the plaintiffs, who asked that there be no citizenship question on the 2020 census.  The court listed several reasons:

  • First, that asking the question would suppress responses so that hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people would be uncounted. The undercount would translate into loss of political power and funds.
  • Second, that adding the question would add immensely to the cost of the census, because of the need to follow-up with non-respondents.
  • Third, that the Sec of Commerce had violated several federal statutes in the way he added the question.
  • Finally, that this information is available from other sources

Will the question be there in 2020?

Too early to say, because there are two undecided cases, and once they are decided there will probably be an appeal to the US Supreme Court.  The census has to be ready to print in June of this year, so speed in deciding is of the essence.

What do we know about how the census will be conducted in 2020?

This census will not be conducted solely by door-to-door census workers, but rather by asking people to submit their answers online, either at their home, or at a location such as a public library.  This is a huge change.  There will be follow-up on households that do not respond online.

Are responses to the census made public or available to other government agencies or law enforcement?

No! The Census Law, Title 13 of the U.S. Code, requires that responses to Census Bureau surveys and censuses be kept confidential and used for statistical purposes only.  The Census Bureau publishes only aggregated statistics that do not reveal information about particular individuals, households or businesses.  All staff working with confidential information at the Census Bureau take a lifetime oath to protect the privacy and confidentiality of respondent information.  Unlawful disclosure is a federal crime punishable by a $250,000 fine or five years in prison, or both.

How does the Census Bureau know where all the dwellings are?

Preparation for the Census starts with many steps, one of which is to ask every jurisdiction (city, town, village, township, etc) to identify and verify every street and house number.

How else are local governments and other groups involved?

That process has already begun, and will pick up quickly this year.  In short, the Census Bureau has a “Complete Count” initiative and has asked state and local governments to establish methods to encourage all residents to respond to the Census.

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— Lisa Barry is the host of All Things Considered on WEMU. You can contact Lisa at 734.487.3363, on Twitter @LisaWEMU, or email her at lbarryma@emich.edu

Lisa Barry was a reporter, and host of All Things Considered on 89.1 WEMU.
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