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In The Public Interest: Getting Ready For The 2020 Census

League of Women Voters of the Ann Arbor Area
Lisa Barry
89.1 WEMU

This week on “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 Margaret Leary about the upcoming 2020 census.


About the Topic 

Second interview about the 2020 Census with details about how it will be conducted and time period for completion.

About the Guest

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.

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.

Could you review the basic points about the 2020 census from our first interview?

  1. Sure. The 2020 census is one of the every-ten-year counts of “the whole number of persons in each State” mandated by the Article 1 Sec. 2 of the Constitution.  The Constitutional purpose is to apportion Representatives in Congress among the states, proportional to the number of persons—how many of the 435 members of Congress go to each state.
  2. And, the numbers produced by the census are then used within each state to draw lines for state and local election districts.
  3. Then, billions of dollars of federal aid as well as money from other sources, are distributed.  Michigan received $29 BILLION from large federal spending programs in FY2016, based on the 2010 census.
  4. And, the decennial census, supplemented with other surveys taken more often, are useful to businesses, local governments, charitable organizations, real estate developers, and more, to determine the best deployment of their resources.

Many listeners may remember filling out a paper census form; some would remember a long form, others a short form.  Will the 2020 census be done that way?

The 2020 Census will use an entirely different system: respondents can choose among the internet, phone, or a paper form—which they estimate 30% of respondents will use.  Starting in March next year, the Bureau will mail letters with census instructions to all residences. In areas deemed “hard to count” more followup will be done: by letters, and in-person.

What about people who don’t have internet?

The Census knows what areas have less internet access, or where people are less likely to respond and will mail paper forms to those areas, with more forms sent in April as reminders.  In southeast Michigan, the Census estimates about 14% of homes don’t have broadband.  Of course, people without broadband at home can go to a trusted location such as a public library or their church to respond online.

Asking everyone in the country to respond to questions seems an enormous undertaking.  Can you describe the essential steps?

It is a huge undertaking. There are four steps.

First, establishing where to count, by conducting a 100 percent review and update of the nation’s address list.

Second, motivate people to respond: conduct a nationwide communications and partnership campaign.

Third, count the population: collect data from all households, including group and unique living arrangements.

Fourth, release the results.

About establishing where to count.  How does the census know where everyone is?

There are three major methods.  First, the Bureau asks local governmental agencies, essentially the Planning and Development units of cities and counties, to upgrade address lists using information they already have, such as from the approval of new subdivisions and other new construction.  Second, from census offices, staff study aerial images.  Third, local social service groups identify areas where homeless are, for they too should be counted.

And another basic: when will the census happen, and when will we know the results?

The official census day is April 1, 2020.  The count will of people where they were on April 1, but the actual responding and followup on those who have not responded will run until June. 

The apportionment counts (done by the Census Bureau, allocating the 435 Members of Congress among the 50 states) will be delivered to the President by 12-31-2020.

Counts for redistricting within the states will be released by April 1, 2021.  In Michigan, these counts will be released to the Secretary of State for use by the new Citizen Redistricting Commission that voters overwhelmingly approved last November.

What questions will be on the form?

It is quite short—for a reason I can explain in a minute—and should take 10 minutes or less to answer.  The 7 questions are, for each person in the house: Name, age, sex, Hispanic origin, race, relationship in the household, and home rental or ownership.

The reason there are no longer a long as well as a short form is that, since 2010, the Census Bureau has developed very sophisticated statistical methods to use information gathered from other Census Bureau surveys sent to relatively few people, to extrapolate national numbers.  The most important of these are the American Community Survey, and several surveys of businesses.

In our first interview, you described the controversy over a citizenship question.  Will that be on the form?

We don’t know yet.  The matter is before the US Supreme Court, due to issue an opinion by the end of June.  The Trump Administration wants it there, but dozens of groups from the ACLU to a number of states, including groups representing minorities, have sued the Commerce Dept, alleging that the process used to put the question on the Census was illegal, that the information is available elsewhere, and that the question will certainly lower responses by at least 5-8%.  Two federal district courts, one in NY and one in CA, have ruled with no hesitation that the process was illegal, the question is unnecessary, and the question would lower response rates.  The LWV of US supported a brief in support of the plaintiffs in the New York case.

My fear is that the mere publicity over the possibility of the question will leave people with fear of responding.

Are the other pending problems with the census?

Yes.  The NAACP has sued the Census Bureau, contending that the Bureau’s inadequate preparations for the 2020 Census will lead to a dramatic undercount of communities of color and a violation of the government’s constitutional duty to count the “whole number of persons” in the country.

This case is currently pending in the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland.

Any other concerns?

“Where” a person is counted is very important.  The Census Bureau has developed clear rules for many categories, such as students away at school, prisoners, homeless people, and those in health care facilities. One category is unresolved, military people stationed abroad.  The administration wants to count them as if they were at their U.S. base, rather than their usual home.  This would result in many more people being counted in states with large military bases, largely in the south.

People are also concerned about potential politicization of the count, threats to the security of census data, and growing distrust of the federal government.

Is the Census Bureau calling on other organizations, and ordinary people, to get the count done?

  1. Yes, the Census is using what it calls “Complete Count Committees,” led by local governments and including people representing the entire community, to help get out the word about the importance of “counting each person, once, in the right place.”  The Michigan Non Profit Association, of which the LWV is a member, has a committee that is organizing some of this effort.
  2. Ypsilanti’s Mayor Beth Bashert, Ann Arbor’s Mayor Christopher Taylor, and the Washtenaw County administration have begun to get ready.


2020 Census Operational Plan, Executive Summary, Feb. 2018 from

BeCountedMI2020, whose source was the 2017 American Community Survey, 1 year estimates (one page handout)

“A Critical History of the United States Census and Citizenship Questions” by Thomas P. Wolf & Breuanna Cea (from Brennan Center website, published in online Georgetown Law Journal v. 108 p. 1-36, Feb. 2019).

“What’s new for the 2020 census? Far fewer paper forms.  The internet and mobile phones are in.  Here’s what you can expect.” Ted Mellnik and Reuben Fischer-Baum, Washington Post April 2, 2019

“Counting for dollars 2020: the role of the decennial census in the geographic distribution of federal funds. Report #2: Estimating fiscal costs of a census undercount to states.” Andrew Reamer, Research Professor, George Washington Institute of Public Policy, March 19, 2018.

U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, Opinion in New York Immigration Coalition v. U.S. Dept of Commerce.

Brief for Amici Curiae The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, and Civil Society Organizations in Support of Respondents, Department of Commerce et al., Petitioners, v. State of New York, et al., Respondents. Supreme Court of the United States docket no. 18-966, to be argued April 23, 2019.

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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

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