How The 2020 Census Could Doom American Democracy

The next census is being handled by the same administration that brought us healthcare repeal, meaningful tax reform, and the Big Sexy Beautiful Wall. It's obviously destined to be a disaster so epic that Roland Emmerich will make a subpar movie about it. And that's a huge problem, because it turns out something that costs billions of dollars and is literally in one of the opening lines of the U.S. Constitution is kind of a big deal. We need to start caring about the census, because things are looking bad ...

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There's Less Manpower And Way Less Money

Traditionally, census data is gathered in two ways: forms are mailed to people's homes, and if those don't get a response, a volunteer pays them a visit to get their data. In recent censuses, however, we're seeing a lot fewer people returning their postal forms. The mail-in response rate for the 2010 census, for instance, was only 63 percent. Which means that we're becoming increasingly reliant on house calls. Now, the 2010 census spent a lot of energy recruiting volunteers from vulnerable, underrepresented, and/or marginalized communities to give them an "in" that could result in a more accurate count. But due to massive budget cuts, we're going to have 200,000 fewer volunteers walking the streets for the 2020 census. So each volunteer is going to be dealing with a significantly larger share of the country's demographic of f*****g crazy people, and we're also going to be missing huge swathes of the population because there'll be no one to follow up with them.

Michael/Adobe StockThis doesn't even factor in the 57 hours it takes to get from one house to the next in Wyoming.

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This is a bad thing for a census.

The census, believe it or not, isn't just some tedious government box-ticking exercise. It's incredibly important in deciding how federal funds are distributed among states for things like welfare programs, healthcare, schools, public housing, and infrastructure. Ironically, Congress has been underfunding the Census Bureau itself for the last several years, which has impacted efforts to test and roll out plans for the 2020 census. In 2018, Congress finally gave them a decent budget ... but only enough to provide the "minimum resources needed to prepare for its constitutional mandate." In other words, enough money to do the absolute minimum to ensure that the founding fathers don't rise from their graves and beat Wilbur Ross' ass.

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It's all sounding pretty grim so far, but good news! There's an online system that's going to solve all of these problems!

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There's A New Online System That Should Worry ... Everybody

The Census Bureau is hoping that they'll be able to mitigate some of their many, many shortfalls by giving people the ability to fill out their census forms online. To that end, every household will be sent a postcard containing a unique code they can use to get on the census website, which is a tragic misunderstanding of everything internet.

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It doesn't help that nobody wants to commit any money to make sure this thing actually works (*cough*). Those pesky aforementioned budget cuts mean that the system hasn't been tested in any meaningful way. Of the three live tests the Census Bureau planned for the system, two had to be scrapped. But hey, one out of three ain't bad.

U.S. Census BureauOh wait, yes, that is objectively and provably bad.

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And maybe you've noticed, but people are a little concerned about what's happening with their data these days. This new system might encourage people who were previously too busy or lazy to respond, but there's no guarantee that gain wouldn't be mitigated by people worried that their data might end up with Cambridge Analytica 2.0, Russia, or Donald Trump -- or to put it another way, Donald Trump, Donald Trump, or Donald Trump.

An online system also disenfranchises low-income/immigrant populations, who out of all demographics are less likely to have reliable internet access. A recent survey, for instance, found that only 62 percent of households earning $25,000+ per year have internet access (compared to 86 percent for households earning $100,000+ per year). Another survey found that, of the low-income households who only access the internet via smartphone, 24 percent have had their service cut for not paying their bills. The census response rate has always been low among immigrant populations anyway, because of their fear that the government will use census information to hunt them down and throw them in the back of a van. And this sentiment existed in 2010, before those fears would become even more well-founded.

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2
The New Citizenship Question Is Seriously Ominous

One major addition to the 2020 census is the question "Is this person a citizen of the United States?"

That's obviously worrying to a lot of folks. It doesn't add anything of real value to the census, because not only is this information already gathered by the American Community Survey, but also a count of an area's citizens vs. non-citizens doesn't matter when it comes to allocating federal funding at a state level. It only serves to dissuade non-citizens from answering by playing off their already-present fear of ICE hit squads.

John Moore/Getty ImagesIceholes, if you will.

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There are currently countless lawsuits in the works -- filed by states, cities, groups, and individuals -- that aim to have this question removed from the 2020 census. And we better hope they succeed, or else volunteers administering the in-person census aren't going to find those people -- or if they do, they're not going to get a response when they ring the doorbell. In situations like that, the census board has to rely on its last resort, local and state records ... which won't contain reliable information about people who've just arrived (that's the "immigrant" part of the word).

Of course, we're treating these things as bugs in the system ... but what if they're really features?

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The Census Might Be Used To Rig Future Elections

The census also underpins how voting districts are drawn and how the Electoral College works. After the last two years, you do not need to be reminded of how important those things are. The ultimate consequence of a screwy census, then, is a screwy vote -- funnily enough, to the total advantage of the GOP. It's not a coincidence that this census (and some of the ones before it) works so hard to disenfranchise immigrant, minority, and low-income voters through fear of deportation, restriction of access, and the breakdown of favorable local knowledge. Those groups not only all traditionally favor liberal parties, but those demographics mostly cluster in cities, aka liberal strongholds.

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By allowing significant undercounts to occur in these areas, the GOP effectively kneecaps the power of blue states in the Electoral College, which act according to the results of the census by keeping elector numbers at the same level, even if more are warranted. Or worse, removing electors in favor of "faster-growing states" ... and what party do you think those states represent?

Scott Olson/Getty ImagesHint: They're the ones that are counting all of their people.

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This isn't some crazy conspiracy theory. Several hardline anti-immigration politicians like Kris Kobach have declared that they want to use census data to redraw legislative maps based on the number of people living in a district, rather than total population, which reduces the political power of areas with a high level of non-response.

We should also mention that there are ways to deal with census under-counts ... but when the census bureau announced that they would try it with regard to minority respondents of the 1990 census, they were sued by the RNC on the grounds that this endangered "our GOP majority in the House of Representatives as well as partisan control of state legislatures nationwide." The case eventually went to the Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the RNC by a 5-4 majority, because everything is terrible and always has been.

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Notice we didn't say "always will be." We've got two years left to decide that part.

Adam Wears is on Twitter and Facebook, and has a newsletter about depressing history that you should definitely subscribe to.

Man, this is so much more complicated than people just going door to door with an abacus.

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