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The Bigger Threat to the 2020 Census


If you have been following the news, you know there is a major court case on whether the 2020 census should include a question on citizenship. The statistical staff in the Bureau of the census argues that this would reduce the participation of Hispanics in the census. Hispanics would be afraid that filling out the census would lead to problems with the immigration authorities, either if they in fact are not citizens or if they are falsely accused of stating that they are citizens when they are not. This would lead to Hispanics not responding to the census, making it falsely seem that they represent a smaller percentage of the population and the electorate than they really do.

The media coverage of this issue is correct. However, the current administration is entirely capable of producing a census that will lead to substantial Hispanic undercount without having to use a citizenship question at all. More so, it is highly likely that such a biased census will actually occur.

How can they do this?

For decades, the census worked to correct for a Hispanic undercount that would occur naturally. Some of this is due to cultural factors. Many Hispanics are suspicious of the government and don’t want to answer questions about anything. Many have family origins in Central and South America, where not every government official is honest. Some migrants have either direct or indirect experience with police or paramilitary violence.

The normal method of overcoming this issue is by doing outreach to Hispanic communities. The Census Bureau advertises in Hispanic neighborhoods, uses Spanish speaking interviewers and works with local organizations to explain the purpose of the census and build trust and good-will. There is no law that requires the Census Bureau to do this. If one wanted to maximize the undercount of Hispanics in the Census, all one has to do is stop doing publicity in Hispanic neighborhoods, stop hiring Spanish speaking interviewers and stop working with local organizations to build trust or good-will.

If one wanted to decrease the representation of Democrats in the population and make the population seem more Republican than it is, there are even simpler measures that can be taken.

Democrats are disproportionately located in large cities, and they are disproportionately located on the West and East coasts. Republicans are more likely to be located in the suburbs, in rural areas, in the Inner Rockies, and in the South. All one has to do is to take the census in a way that undercounts urban residents and people on the coasts while accurately counting people everywhere else. If one were crude about it, one could put more time and effort into taking a careful census in suburbs, rural areas and the South, and do a quick and dirty job on big cities and the coast. Such differential thoroughness would not be noticed by the media and would be difficult for anyone outside the census to detect.

One can achieve a similar result however, without having to resort to using different protocols for different parts of the country.

The easiest way to undercount people is to fail to locate their address and therefore, not get them a census form. In suburbs and rural areas, it is fairly easy to find people’s residences. They either live in houses – or in poor rural areas, in trailers next to houses. A quick drive-by on the street easily locates nearly all of the residences in a community.

Finding urban households is trickier. Buildings can be divided into a multiplicity of units, not all of which are entered by the front door. Houses can be subdivided into smaller living spaces without the subdivision being obvious from the street. One unit is entered through the backdoor. The front door leads an artificial partition – with the right and left halves of the house being separate apartments. The house may have one mailbox for all three units.

Cities have homeless populations. Homeless people have no address to which you can send a census form.

A thorough census does careful block-listing where you carefully identify every residential unit in a block. However, for most of American history, such careful block-listing was not really needed. In 1790, a census taker could simply visit every separate house and get one census form per house. Superficial block-listing will capture most of the population of America’s suburbs and rural areas, and most of the population of the South and Inner Rockies. It will miss a substantial proportion of the coastal urban populations.

So what is the next census likely to find?

The population will have moved from the cities to the suburban belts surrounding them. The population will have moved from the blue states on the coasts to the red states in the interior. The House of Representatives will have to be reapportioned to provide greater representation for these areas. The electoral college will have to give greater weight to the South and the Inner Rockies. Within states, more state representatives will have to go to the suburban belt and fewer will be apportioned to large cities.

There will appear to be decreasing population in areas that are liberal and Democrat, and increasing population in areas that are conservative and Republican.

With one careful mismanagement of the census, the Republican party should be able to put an electoral lock on the nation that will be very, very difficult to break.

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