While constant real-time election updates have dominated the airwaves for months on end, it is important that we do not lose sight of some of the pressing issues that will affect us all even beyond the next four years and prepare to govern accordingly. While the election has gone on, it has coincided with one of the most fundamental and important ways in which we ensure that kind of good and fair governance is possible: the U.S. Census.
Similar to how the COVID-19 pandemic presented a host of unusual challenges for the election this year, though, it has made the Census all the more difficult for officials to carry out properly. As self-response rates remained low in many states, Census workers had to turn to their Nonresponse Follow-up procedures to ensure they could gather as many responses as possible. In a normal year, that would entail physically visiting households that had not self-responded to the Census. Naturally, this was not an option in many cases due to the pandemic.
In lieu of these in-person interviews, Census workers were forced to resort to using existing government records or speaking with neighbors and landlords. However, given that self-response rates were lowest in the nation’s rural communities that are difficult for Census workers to reach, the chances are higher that those records are out of date and that the responses officials have gathered will not be sufficient to ensure a full and accurate count.
While it is true that the counting process may have concluded, Census workers still have ways to sort through questionable data and ensure their final count is right. The problem this year, though, is that after the Supreme Court ruled response collection could end, Census officials were given until the end of the year to verify and report their results. This leaves workers with just over two months, barely half the time they would have in a normal Census year to sort through their findings, which could cause results to be rushed and inaccurate.
Should that deadline not be extended, it is more likely than not that many Americans will be overlooked in the final count of this year’s Census, leaving some states in a precarious position for the decade to come.
The most immediate concern for states that are undercounted is, of course, the potential federal funding that could be lost. The Census findings drive the allocation of more than $1.5 trillion in federal funding to the states. If a state is undercounted by even a seemingly small amount, they could see hundreds of millions of their own tax dollars go to other states, while their local schools go underfunded, infrastructure projects remain incomplete, and health care programs receive fewer resources than they need. Now, with any post-election COVID-19 relief aid likely to be distributed based on local populations which are determined by the Census, an inaccurate count could hinder a state’s ability to get the federal funding they need to fully recover from the economic effects of the pandemic.
Undercounted states could suffer politically, as well. Both seats in the House of Representatives and votes in the Electoral College are distributed based on the results of the Census. If rural areas are undercounted, they will similarly be underrepresented in Washington, D.C., and overlooked in coming presidential elections. This hurts red states more than many of the coastal blue states that are doing well with their census counts.
If we want to ensure our Census count is accurate, we will need legislators to support efforts to extend the current Census reporting deadline so officials have enough time to be sure the responses they’ve collected are as accurate as they can be. Conservative Senate leaders like Rob Portman (R-OH), Jerry Moran (R-KS), Marco Rubio (R-FL), Rick Scott (R-FL), John Cornyn (R-FL), and Ted Cruz (R-TX) must speak up on behalf of their constituents and provide Census workers with more time to report their results.
The election may be squarely in the spotlight. We must be focused on how our government can most effectively serve the interests of the American people in the years to come. In order to ensure that this is possible beyond this election cycle and into the next decade, we must extend the existing reporting deadline for the 2020 Census and make sure it serves its central Constitutional function.