census 2010 form
IPUMS
Since 2010, several changes have been made to the questions planned for the 2020 Census. They include a revised question about same-sex partners and new write-in boxes following race groups. After various legal challenges including a U.S. Supreme Court ruling, the citizenship question will not appear on the form.
UPDATED JULY 12, 2019

Editor’s note regarding the citizenship question (see #2 below): Since this blog was first written, federal judges in California and Maryland have ruled similarly to the first judge in New York that blocked the Trump Administration from adding a citizenship question. The case was then argued before the Supreme Court on April 23, 2019. On June 27 the U.S. Supreme Court blocked the citizenship question from appearing on the 2020 census , and on July 11 President Trump announced he would no longer pursue placing the question on the census questionnaire, but he would sign an executive order to obtain data about the citizenship status of U.S. residents from existing federal data sets.

April 1, 2020: Census Day is coming and it’s no joke

Six answers to your questions about the upcoming 2020 Census count


When April 1, 2020 rolls around you might be celebrating April Fool’s Day, but I’ll be celebrating “Census Day”—as April 1 is the reference date for our nation’s every-10-year tally of the entire population. The thought of all the new data being created to better understand our nation has researchers, this one included, downright thrilled. The 2020 Census has been in the news more than usual. Here’s an update on some of the curiosities and controversies surrounding the upcoming big count.


1. Why do we conduct a 10-year census?

For one, because the U.S. Constitution mandates it and we’ve been doing so since 1790. Each year that does not end in -0, the Census Bureau estimates which states and places are growing or shrinking. But the decennial census gives us a superior count of how our nation’s population has shifted around the country. It is an essential cog in in our nation’s democracy: The decennial census data dictates how to redistribute the 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives (known as “reapportionment”), to help states revise their congressional and state legislative district boundaries, as well as to update the number of electoral votes given to each state.

race question 2020 census
U.S. Census Bureau
Above is the race question that will appear on the 2020 census.

Data from the  census and the complementary annual American Community Survey direct how roughly $900 billion per year in federal and state funding are spent on health, social, transportation, and education programs—and helps us plan for and respond to emergencies. It also gives voice to the size and needs of cultural and other communities, which is why their participation is so critical.

Finally, what many casual observers may not know is that the census count is also the foundation upon which almost every other American survey in the public or private sector is based upon—as it’s a “ground-truthing” of the actual population, not just a sample of it. As such, it is essential for countless research efforts that improve our communities and strengthen the economy.


2. What questions will be on the 2020 census form?

In March of 2018, the Census Bureau delivered to Congress the questions that would appear on the 2020 Census form. Among them were the usual suspects—age, sex, race, Hispanic origin, relationships among people living together, and homeowner/renter status—with a few refinements. Unlike earlier censuses, two adults living together will be asked whether they are "same-sex" or "opposite-sex" partners, a change expected to greatly improve the national picture of both types of couples, including how many are married. In the race questions, white and black race respondents will be further prompted to detail how they identify culturally, for example, Lebanese or Somali. Also new this year: Americans can provide their answers to the census online, in additional to by mail or phone.

But the most notable new question delivered to Congress was one regarding citizenship status, which has not appeared on a decennial census questionnaire since 1950. The March 2018 memorandum by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross announcing the addition took many by surprise, as it did not go through the typical rigorous testing of the Bureau. Secretary Ross said the question was added to protect voting rights but research indicates that the question may also serve to depress participation among immigrant groups, especially those without legal status (see here and here).

Analysis by demographer William Frey of the Brookings Institution finds Latinos, Asians, young people, and urban residents would be most affected by the question’s addition. The upshot, according to him: “Their reduced response would lead to a flawed reapportionment of Congress underrepresenting high immigrant states. It could also lead to the drawing of congressional and state legislative districts that overrepresent whites, older populations, and rural residents.”

citizenship question 2020 census proposed
U.S. Census Bureau
Above is the citizenship question that U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross proposed to add to the 2020 census, at the direction of the Trump Administration.

The citizenship question spurred several lawsuits around the country (joined by more than 20 states, cities, and other organizations). In January of this year, in the first ruling on this topic, a federal judge in New York struck down the addition of a citizenship question to the 2020 census. The Trump Administration appealed the ruling, and it appears the question may ultimately be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Editors note: Since this blog was first written, federal judges in California and Maryland have ruled similarly to the first judge in New York that blocked the Trump Administration from adding a citizenship question. The case was then argued before the Supreme Court on April 23, 2019. On June 27 the U.S. Supreme Court blocked the citizenship question from appearing on the 2020 census, and on July 11 President Trump announced he would no longer pursue placing the question on the census questionnaire, but he would sign an executive order to obtain data about the citizenship status of U.S. residents from existing federal data sets.

3.  Which states will likely gain or lose congressional seats after the 2020 Census?

This question is a favorite parlor game of demographers and political pundits. It depends on how quickly states’ populations are growing—see our recent blog for a primer on this—and the formula for reapportionment. Roughly 10 seats will likely by shuffled, affecting 16 states. The nonpartisan political redistricting consulting firm Election Data Services predicted the following changes to congressional seats on the heels of the latest Census population estimates, released in December 2018.

States likely gaining one or more seats include:

  • Arizona (+1, from 9 to 10 seats); Colorado (+1, from 7 to 8 seats); Florida (+2, from 27 to 29 seats); Montana (+1, from 1 at-large to 2 seats); North Carolina (+1, from 13 to 14 seats); Oregon (+1, from 5 to 6 seats); and Texas (+3, from 36 to 39 seats)

States likely losing one or more seats include:

  • Alabama (-1, from 7 to 6 seats); Illinois (-1, from 18 to 17 seats); Michigan (-1, from 14 to 13 seats); New York (-2, from 27 to 25 seats); Ohio (-1, from 16 to 15 seats); Pennsylvania (-1, from 18 to 17 seats); Rhode Island (-1, from 2 to 1 at-large seat); and West Virginia (-1, from 3 to 2 seats)

In addition, these states may or may not lose a seat, depending on which projection method is used:

  • California (-1, from 53 to 52 seats) or Minnesota (-1, from 8 to 7 seats)

But predicting congressional seat swaps is also a guessing game fraught with uncertainty, especially considering the impact that natural disasters can have on population. Hurricane Katrina is a cautionary tale: In 2005, no one predicted that Louisiana would lose a congressional district at the end of the decade. Yet Katrina’s devastating arrival in August 2005 led to enough relocations and deaths that Louisiana lost its seventh seat following the 2010 count. Similarly, Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico has sent tens of thousands of residents to Florida and other states, swelling their population.

states gain seats
APM Research Lab, based on EDS forecasts


states lose seats
APM Research Lab, based on EDS forecasts


states MAY lose seats 2
APM Research Lab, based on EDS forecasts


As in prior years, deployed members of the military will also be tallied at their home residence for purposes of the 2020 census. They do not appear in the 2018 population estimates, so their inclusion could also alter the shuffling of seats predicted above. Other factors, such a robust outreach effort with the involvement of trusted community partners, could be the deciding ones between states that are neck-and-neck to the population finish line.

4. When will states’ electoral votes change based on the 2020 Census?

The 2020 Census will not change the number of electoral college votes each state has for the 2020 presidential election. (Bear in mind that each state receives electoral votes equivalent to its number of congressional districts, plus two votes for its senators.) The 2024 presidential election will be the first time the new electoral votes will be in play. To see how 2018 population estimates for states would have changed prior presidential election outcomes (hypothetically speaking), check out this interactive map by “270 to win.” Among other things, it reveals that if one projected 2024 map had been in place in 2016, President Trump would have won three more electoral votes than the 306 he won.


5. The Census Bureau aims to count everyone living here “once, only once, and in the right place.” How well have past counting efforts gone? 

As important as the decennial census is, there is always room for improvement. Historically the Census Bureau has done a poorer job of accurately counting communities of color, immigrants especially those with limited English proficiency, low-income households, those in rural areas, renters, and homeless or highly mobile individuals. And young children, especially babies (who, until they can crawl, are highly immobile). In partnership with state and local governments and nonprofits, the Census Bureau is working to obtain the best count, with special emphasis on hard-to-count populations and parts of the country. Both budget and staffing shortages at the Bureau, however, have not aided in their efforts.

A newly published CBAMS report (I’ll be the first to acknowledge the Bureau is better at gathering data than making acronyms) identified common reasons people may not participate in the census: distrust in all levels of government, feeling that it doesn’t matter if you are counted, concerns about confidentiality, and fear of repercussions. It’s important for all residents to know that by law, the census cannot be used in any way to prosecute respondents.


6. Is it really important that I complete the census?

Absolutely. When April 1 rolls around next year, please don’t treat the census as a joke. The way the government spends your tax dollars, the way businesses make decisions, and the way we elect our leaders all depend on it.


-Andi (@DataANDInfo

Have other questions about the 2020 Census? Email us at info@apmresearchlab or send them our way via Twitter or Facebook and we’ll share the answer.