The ongoing politics of the 2020 Census

The dicennial Census is not just a counting exercise; it is a political matter as this commentary suggests.

According to recent documents from the Census Bureau and the Government Accountability Office, the bureau plans to substantially cut back on door-to-door surveying and, instead, use the internet, the Post Office and other means to determine who is living where.

The bureau thinks the 2020 survey will cost $5.2 billion less than the last one (an estimate the GAO questions), but the accuracy could be called into question. There will also likely be worries about fraud because many of the conclusions will be drawn through “imputations” — educated guesses.

In fact, fraud could affect the House of Representatives elections for years to come if someone isn’t watching.

During a recent hearing before the House Oversight Committee, which maintained control over the Census Bureau after the Obama-Emanuel caper, a key technology officer for the 2020 decennial admitted that a fraud prevention system won’t be fully in place until just a few months before the polling starts.

If the Census Bureau – often led by sociologists and other social scientists who have expertise in collecting and analyzing data – is fraudulent because certain parties don’t like the result, what can be left alone?

Sampling and estimation alone does not have to be a problem. Just because the Census can’t reach everyone – and they have certainly tried at points – doesn’t mean that there is room for fraud. If done well, the estimates are made based on accurate samples – meaning they generally match the proportions of the total population – and responsible people reporting on this data will always note that there is not 100% certainty in the data.

Census 2020 to go digital and online

The Census Bureau is developing plans to go digital in 2020:

The bureau’s goal is that 55% of the U.S. population will respond online using computers, mobile phones or other devices. It will mark the first time (apart from a small share of households in 2000) that any Americans will file their own census responses online. This shift toward online response is one of a number of technological innovations planned for the 2020 census, according to the agency’s recently released operational plan. The plan reflects the results of testing so far, but it could be changed based on future research, congressional reaction or other developments…

The Census Bureau innovations are driven by the same forces afflicting all organizations that do survey research. People are increasingly reluctant to answer surveys, and the cost of collecting their data is rising. From 1970 to 2010, the bureau’s cost to count each household quintupled, to $98 per household in 2010 dollars, according to the GAO. The Census Bureau estimates that its innovations would save $5.2 billion compared with repeating the 2010 census design, so the 2020 census would cost a total of $12.5 billion, close to 2010’s $12.3 billion price tag (both in projected 2020 dollars)…

The only households receiving paper forms under the bureau’s plan would be those in neighborhoods with low internet usage and large older-adult populations, as well as those that do not respond online.

To maximize online participation, the Census Bureau is promoting the idea that answering the census is quick and easy. The 2010 census was advertised as “10 questions, 10 minutes.” In 2020, bureau officials will encourage Americans to respond anytime and anywhere – for example, on a mobile device while watching TV or waiting for a bus. Respondents wouldn’t even need their unique security codes at hand, just their addresses and personal data. The bureau would then match most addresses to valid security codes while the respondent is online and match the rest later, though it has left the door open to restrict use of this option or require follow-up contact with a census taker if concerns of fraud arise.

Perhaps the marketing slogan could be: “Do the Census online to save your own taxpayer dollars!”

It will be interesting to see how this plays out. I’m sure there will be plenty of tests to (1) make sure the people responding are matched correctly to their address (and that fraud can’t be committed); (2) the data collected is as accurate as going door to door and mailing out forms; and (3) the technological infrastructure is there to handle all the traffic. Even after going digital, the costs will be high and I’m guessing more people will ask why all the expense is necessary. Internet response rates to surveys are notoriously low so it may take a lot of marketing and reminders to get a significant percentage of online respondents.

But, if the Census Bureau can pull this off, it could represent a significant change for the Census as well as other survey organizations.

(The full 192 page PDF file of the plan is here.)