Answering the US Census is your civic — and legal — duty


Under Article 1, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution, the American government conducts a decennial census.  The questions asked of all Americans every 10 years are up to the Census Bureau, the secretary of Commerce who oversees the Bureau, and ultimately the president. The citizenship question is not unlawful, nor is it racist or discriminatory, even as some Americans object to any citizenship question on the survey.

{mosads}The decennial census has been taken since 1790, over the years asking Americans questions that determine federal funding and Congressional representation, questions of housing and household information including languages spoken at home and education levels and generally determining who resides in the United States.  

The 2020 census will be America’s 24th. It elicits valuable information about America and who resides within America’s borders. Census officials make phone calls and knock on doors to obtain information from reluctant responders.  

Congressional representation is not determined by citizenship, but by population.  Individuals who don’t complete census forms, because they may not like the question or despise President Trump, can potentially diminish Congressional representation.  Congressional districts without census numbers that justify their existence will be eliminated in favor of Congressional districts with increasing census numbers because residents there complete their census forms.  

Not completing census forms is a crime under Title 13 of the U.S. Code.  Title 13 calls for a $100 fine for refusing to answer a census question and a $500 fine for answering questions falsely. However, the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 effectively increased these minimum fines to $5,000, codified under Title 18 of the U.S. Code.  

Even though the Census Bureau is not a prosecuting agency and rarely prosecutes for such unlawful failures, usually a census official will contact a resident who fails to complete a census form to allow conformance and compliance with the request. No census failures have resulted in prosecution since 1970. Religious beliefs or a person’s membership in a religious body preventing completion of the survey are exceptions.

In 2010 and 2000 the Census completion rate was more than 70 percent, that completion percentage could change as President Trump’s approval rating hovers at less than 50 percent and some Americans may refuse to answer any citizenship or other questions simply because President Trump’s government is asking for the information. The administration has denied any intention to use the census to crack down on undocumented immigrants residing in the U.S. or using census information as an immigration weapon.

Completing the Census form is a civic duty, as valuable to society as serving on juries, paying taxes or obtaining a driver’s license. It’s been estimated that it takes about 40 minutes to complete the census and send it in.

Making the survey voluntary has been tried. With voluntary submission of the annual Census supplement, the response rate fell by about 20 percent. Therefore, in light of such a drop off early in this century, and considering the controversy surrounding the citizenship question that will likely be part of the 2020 census and the dislike for President Trump, the likelihood of a voluntary census is slim without the mandatory nature of it through Titles 13 and 18 of the U.S. Code enforcement mechanisms.

Objections to the citizenship question have been raised by Democrats seeking Congressional hearings on the census and by lawsuits being filed by LGBTQ groups and immigration groups.

Sexual orientation questions were removed this year from the 2020 draft of census questions, outraging LGBTQ groups, even though such questions have never been asked in prior census surveys.  Sexual preference groups have for years tried to have gender and sexual preference questions included. Advocates argue that the federal government should know such information about those who identify with LGBTQ groups so that their rights can be adequately protected, but the issue is more a creature of the current culture.  

As for other considerations, in December 2016, the U.S. Department of Justice asked for the now-controversial citizenship question so that it would have information necessary to enforce the federal Voting Rights Act. Since noncitizens cannot vote anyway, calls from them that object to the citizenship question seem to be an effort to politicize the advocacy question.

Why shouldn’t Americans have accurate information about the numbers of undocumented immigrants present within U.S. borders, how many citizens reside in the U.S. and other information elicited by the survey?

A common-sense citizenship question will provide helpful information.

George Nethercutt is the former Republican Congressman from the 5th District of Washington and a former member of the National Security Appropriations Subcommittee.

Tags census history Citizenship citizenship question Donald Trump Donald Trump lgbt census lgbtq question United States Census United States Census Bureau

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