Tom Purcell: Accurate census count is essential

Published 12:56 am Friday, September 4, 2020

Data collection for the 2020 U.S. Census ends soon. This census, the 22nd in U.S. history, has faced its share of challenges and controversies.

The goal of the census has remained the same throughout its 230-year history: to count every person living in the United States.

The Constitution requires the federal government to do so every 10 years. The population count determines the number of U.S. House seats each state will have – which can become highly political.

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When a state gains or loses seats, the party in power sometimes redraws congressional districts in hopes of making it impossible for the other party to win. That’s why census results are so important to politicians.

The census also determines how much federal funding your neighborhood will receive. The more people counted in a region, the more money that region will receive for roads, bridges and other government programs.

From the start, this census has faced no small number of controversies and challenges.

“From cybersecurity issues to administrative problems to a legal drama over a possible citizenship question, there are plenty of reasons to worry about the decennial head count,” noted The Atlantic in July 2018.

Cybersecurity certainly is a concern. This is the very first census that allows answering questions online – which may put respondents and their data at risk of cyberattack, particularly amid COVID-19, which has brought thousands of scammers out of the woodwork.

Wired reported in 2019 that “experts fear the (census) bureau is opening itself up to a range of new risks, from basic functionality and connectivity failures to cybersecurity threats and disinformation campaigns.”

Disinformation in the era of social media? I’m shocked.

To stay secure, remember that the Census Bureau will never ask for your full Social Security number, or your bank account or credit card numbers, or for money or donations – but scammers pretending to be from the bureau will.

Ten questions ask about respondents’ name, sex, age, race, telephone number and whether they own or rent. There are no questions about religion, whether one is a legal resident or whether one has a Social Security number.

When the Trump administration proposed adding a citizenship question, opponents cried foul. They said the question would intimidate noncitizens into not responding, which would result in undercounts in districts with many noncitizens. The administration eventually dropped that idea.

Here’s the latest battle, according to Roll Call: “Under pressure from the Trump administration to end the count early, the (Census) agency will conclude all enumeration efforts on Sept. 30, and then comb through data before wrapping up the whole process by Dec. 31 – half the time the agency originally anticipated after delaying its initial schedule because of the pandemic.”

Trump opponents say this could cause undercounting in minority communities. The administration says modern technologies and efficiencies enable an accurate count and meeting its statutory deadline of Dec. 31, 2020.

In an era when everything is hopelessly political and political opponents loathe and distrust each other, one thing really matters.

It’s essential that we get our census data right.

Tom Purcell is a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review humor columnist and is syndicated by Cagle Cartoons. Email Tom at