Proposed Legislation Would Prevent Census Tampering

March 28, 2018 | 1:26 pm
Michael Latner
Senior Voting Rights Fellow

In anticipation of this week’s announced plans for the Commerce Department to add a citizenship question to the regular form on the 2020 Census, a group of legislators have proposed a bill designed to protect the scientific integrity of the Census from late additions.

“The 2020 Census Improving Data and Enhanced Accuracy (IDEA) Act has unfortunately become a necessary safeguard against this administration’s clear desire to politicize and compromise the 2020 Census,” said Rep. Maloney. “This bill will protect the integrity of the census, our nation’s largest peacetime undertaking, by making sure that topics and questions included in the census are properly vetted and not added at the last minute—endangering the accuracy of the census, response rates, and cost to the taxpayer.”

The 2020 Census IDEA Act would:

  • Prohibit last-minute changes or additions to the census without proper research, studying, and testing;
  • Ensure that subjects, types of information, and questions that have not been submitted to Congress according to existing law are not included;
  • Require biannual reports on the U.S. Census Bureau’s operation plan, including the status of its research and testing, and require that this report be publicly available on the Bureau’s website;
  • Direct the U.S. Government Accountability Office to determine and report to Congress that the subjects, types of information, and questions on the decennial census have been researched, studied, and tested to the same degree as previous decennial census; and
  • Apply the provisions of this bill only to the decennial census, and not the mid-decade census or the American Community Survey.

This is not just a concern for demographers. Businesses rely on regional information about the age, income, education, family structure, occupations and commuting patterns of people that determine market segmentations. This sort of behavioral data, which is only captured once every 10 years, provides the best picture that we have about how American consumers live.

Former Census Director Dr. Kenneth Prewitt attended the announcement of the IDEA Act. Prewitt stated that he could not offer “any scientific reason to add a question at this late time to the census form, but I can assure you that this untested, last minute change will introduce great risk to the accuracy and cost to the people’s census.” He added that Thomas Jefferson, who, along with James Madison, initiated the first census, would be “turning over in his grave.” Scientists and citizens alike need to stay vigilant about the integrity of the Census, which is, after all, the story of who we were, who we are, and who we are becoming as a people.

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Michael Latner is a Senior Fellow with the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. His research focuses on political representation and electoral systems, including redistricting and gerrymandering in the US, and the impact of electoral administrative law on political participation.