Will a citizenship question derail the 2020 Census?

It depends on who you ask.

Department of Commerce officials at a May 8 hearing said that there is no evidence a recent addition to the 2020 Decennial Census that asks respondents to disclose their citizenship status will have a negative impact on response numbers.

“There is no definitive evidence that this will adversely affect responses,” said Earl Comstock, director of the Office of Policy and Strategic Planning at the Department of Commerce, speaking before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

The citizenship question was added at the request of the Department of Justice, which said that greater accuracy of citizenship numbers across the U.S. will better help them enforce the Voting Rights Act, which gives the federal government oversight of voter registration in minority-dense areas to prevent discrimination.

Comstock added that the fear surrounding the citizenship question has largely been drummed up by politicians, as questions of citizenship have been asked on the Census Bureau’s smaller American Community Survey without issue, and all responses are kept confidential even from other branches of government.

Loyola Law School Associate Dean for Research Justin Levitt, however, cited the Census’s own recent findings on the public’s lack of trust in government negatively impacting responses to citizenship and immigration question testing.

“By November 2017 — months before Secretary [Wilbur] Ross announced that he would add a citizenship question to the decennial instrument — the alarm bells had grown significantly louder,” said Levitt, explaining that career Census Bureau staff had experienced an “unprecedented groundswell” of concern about the confidentiality of their responses, particularly as they related to immigration.

According to Levitt, a lack of trust in the government can cause many to forego responding to certain questions, and that immigration tensions with the current administration make a citizenship question all the more contentious.

“The last time we asked every person in the country about their citizenship, 73 percent of the public trusted the government. That figure is now 18 percent. If you add a toxic issue to a toxic climate, people won’t open the door,” said Levitt. “Adding any individual question is a big change. Adding this question is a behemoth.”

Comstock said that people who don’t trust the government right now likely made their response decisions before the citizenship question was added.

New questions aside, the upcoming Census already faces a series of systemic and environmental challenges that could cause problems in 2020.

According to Dave Powner, director of IT Management Issues at the Government Accountability Office, the Census Bureau has only completed development on 30 of their total 44 IT systems needed for the 2020 Census, and many of those systems still require approval by agency leadership.

Dave Powner, Director IT Issues at US GAO sat down with Federal Times on Friday April 13, 2018. (Alan Lessig/Staff)
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For those that are concerned about the security of the information they provide to the Census, 39 of the systems contain personally identifiable information, and many still need better security controls.

“Making sure things are secure, that’s probably the highest risk item,” Powner said.

The 2020 Census has also proven to be significantly over budget, $3 billion over the original $15.6 billion estimate.

The Census could also struggle in accounting for those displaced by recent natural disasters, as 2005’s Hurricane Katrina was proven to have just such an impact on the 2010 Census.

Incorrect accounting of persons for any reason can have a negative impact on the federal funding and congressional representation that goes to various locations across the country.

“Everyone in an area with an undercount loses clout and loses cash,” said Levitt.

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