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How to Fix the Census

Changes are needed to increase the count’s accuracy and fairness.

Brennan Center/Richard Sharrocks/DrPixel/Yury Prokopenko/Getty

The census is a cornerstone of American democracy. The constitutionally required headcount determines how many seats each state gets in the U.S. House of Representatives, how state and local governments redistrict, and how more than $1.5 trillion in federal funding is distributed every year.

The 2020 census may be over, but revelations about the threats it faced are as salient as ever. This summer, news broke that Trump administration officials had plotted to use an untested citizenship question to manipulate not just redistricting but also congressional apportionment. This and other incidents of executive interference combined with Covid-19 and chronic underfunding to create a seemingly endless barrage of challenges that imperiled the count. Legal and policy reforms are critical for ensuring we don’t see a replay of 2020 in 2030 and beyond.

There are many indications that the 2020 census struggled. The final head count missed 18.8 million people. Six states — both red and blue — suffered undercounts as high as 5 percent. And people of color once again went undercounted at disproportionate rates. Black, Latino, and Native American populations in particular were missed at unacceptably high rates, with each of their undercounts getting worse compared to 2010. Meanwhile, overall census response rates have remained stuck in a rut for decades, costs are rising, and the bureau’s reliance on labor-intensive door-to-door outreach is showing its limits.

Future censuses may fare no better. Existing law leaves too much room for political actors to override the best statistical science and manipulate the census. Simultaneously, there’s too little room for the Census Bureau to innovate its design and operations to combat enduring problems like racially discriminatory undercounts. But a comprehensive new Brennan Center report sets forth 19 proposals for reforming census law and policy to address both the problems that plagued 2020 and longstanding challenges to the count.

The report presents an array of solutions to limit future presidential interference. A significant first step would be to establish the Census Bureau as its own executive agency outside the Commerce Department, led by a director with final decision-making authority. Another would be to remove the president from the process of divvying up House seats. Instead of having the president report the population numbers used for the apportionment to Congress, lawmakers should task the Census Bureau director with doing so. Additionally, a bar on untimely and untested additions to the census would bring the public into a more robust, transparent, and participatory process for changing the census questionnaire. New limitations on political appointees, transparency mechanisms, and whistleblower protections would also help insulate the count from meddling.

The report likewise explains how Congress could empower the bureau to collect more accurate and equitable data for the census’s many purposes and users. Revoking statutory limits on the bureau’s data-collection methods would give the bureau the legal flexibility it needs to choose the methods that will most accurately count the nation and reduce mass undercounts of people of color. Facilitating changes to the way the census questionnaire asks about race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and gender identity would allow the bureau to produce data that better reflects the country’s diversity and better meets communities’ needs. Requiring the bureau to count incarcerated people at their home addresses and encouraging bureau officials and prison officials to cooperate in carrying out that mandate would help support promising state efforts to end prison gerrymandering, an unjust practice in which incarcerated people are counted where they are imprisoned rather than at their homes when electoral districts are drawn.

Congress should also rigorously pursue oversight of census activities by establishing permanent committees or subcommittees devoted to the census. It takes an entire decade to plan, fund, study, and implement the count. Permanent committees with dedicated staff and resources would strengthen Congress’s capacity to master this complex subject matter, while regular hearings would provide the public with more transparency surrounding 2020 census operations as well as operational planning for future censuses. Finally, Congress must ensure that the census is fully funded, recognizing that as the census year approaches, the bureau’s budgeting needs grow.

Taken together, these and other changes would help free the Census Bureau from recurrent problems it has never squarely addressed and enable it to respond to future problems more effectively. The result will be a count that provides a more accurate picture of our growing and diversifying nation. That is the census our democracy demands and deserves.