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The Census Day that matters most

The Census Day that matters most
© Greg Nash

Every 10 years, the census counts every American wherever they live on one particular day: “Census Day.” Since 1930, that day has been April 1. This year, the millions charged with making door-to-door counts for the 2020 decennial census must wait in the wings. Because of COVID-19, field operations have been suspended until April 15. Some public officials, including 14 congressional representatives in New York and Chicago’s mayor, have called for extending the counting period as far as the end of the year, or beyond. 

But the census is still taking place online and by phone. More than a third of all households have already responded on their own. And that is crucial because, as we ponder the delays that COVID-19 may cause, remember that the most important Census Day isn’t April 1 — it’s Dec. 31, 2020.

That’s the deadline for handing over the totals of population for each state, figures that will determine how federal power is allocated among the states. The same legislation that set April 1 as Census Day in 1929 also created a system that we still use today, one that automatically decides what each state’s proper number of representatives for the next decade will be. 

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It is a system that has allowed for the peaceful redistribution of power between states for almost a hundred years, born out of the failure of Congress to reapportion itself in 1920. Safeguarding and maintaining that system should be one of our highest priorities. That means making sure the Trump administration doesn’t miss or ignore Dec. 31.

The good news is that, despite a long history of delays, the modern census always has met this one essential deadline. 

Delays in operations actually are more the norm than the exception in census history. Sometimes, extraordinary circumstances such as those we’re living through today can cause delays. During the 1960 census, for example, the Census Bureau made a plea in August for an emergency supplemental appropriation to make up for delays and problems caused by the recent flight of many city dwellers to new, growing suburbs. In 1980, an entire field office in Brooklyn, N.Y., burned, taking all the records from the enumeration with it. The bureau had to recount the entire borough.

But it doesn't take disease, disaster or demographic shifts to push the count out well beyond its planned period of enumeration. The 1940 census offers a typical — and heartening — story of how “slow and steady” completes a count. When the census began in April 1940, the bureau announced that it would allow two weeks for counting within urban areas and a month in the countryside. But almost every urban district took longer, and some took weeks or even months to complete. The same went for rural areas. 

Consider the case of Elbertie Foudray, a key Census Bureau scientist who happened to live on a rural route in Prince George’s County, Md. Even though Foudray showed up at the census offices every day, she and her neighbors weren't reached by a bureau enumerator until June 4. Foudray was far from alone. Less than 2 percent of enumeration district offices closed on time and a fifth of all census-takers were still finishing up their counts in June, a full two months behind schedule. It would still be more than a month before the count was completed.

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We can take heart that even a census in 1940 that faced significant delays — one that depended entirely on human census-takers who completed the count by hand (without computers) — still managed to meet an even shorter deadline than the 2020 census faces. 

In 1940, the Census Bureau had eight months from Census Day to complete its state-level counts, compute the number of representatives for each state by a fixed algorithm using a small army of clerks, and hand those results over to the Secretary of Commerce, who then passed them through the president to the clerk of the House of Representatives. (In 1976, the time for completing the counting and calculating was extended to nine months.) The president received the numbers on Nov. 29 and the bureau published its results in a press release a few days later. 

We should expect the same outcome at the end of this year. To change that deadline would require legislative action, and before that a period of careful investigation and study. In the meantime, our system requires that by the final day of 2020, the Trump administration must transmit the Census Bureau’s count of all Americans, no matter what.

Dan Bouk is a faculty fellow at Data & Society, historian at Colgate University, and author of “How Our Days Became Numbered.” Follow him on Twitter @danbouk.