2020 United States census

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Back in the day, it was “stand up and be counted.” If the U.S. Census Bureau plan to collect data electronically for the 2020 census works, though, the new motto could be “log on and be counted.” But just what would it take to pull off the country’s first online census? As another saying goes, “If it were that easy we would have already done it.” Here’s what’s at stake moving forward.

The risk of undercounting Gen Z and millennials

The census isn’t just a random tally of people. The information also decides critical allocations, from federal budget distribution to congressional district divisions to how many seats go to each state for the Electoral College. If it weren’t so important, we could probably stick with the traditional paper questionnaires and live census takers that have been a mainstay of the past 230 years. But those old-school methods won’t capture data from younger adults, who don’t exactly answer the door unless they ordered pizza and sure aren’t going to pick up the mail (if they even have a mailbox.)

The census really needs to count millennials (born between 1981 and 1986) and Gen Z (born after that) because they make up about 35 percent of the adult population. The states that need that extra population boost provided by the two groups can’t risk undercounting them or they’ll miss out on certain federal funding opportunities (and Congressional seats.) Online surveys make sense for these groups for a bunch of reasons, including not requiring clipboard-wielders to get into their access-only apartments in the urban areas.

The 2020 Census Bureau strategy

In 2020, the Census Bureau will move into the digital age and ask most of its respondents to answer the census online. It will also mail paper copies to the fifth of American households that live in remote regions without ample access to the internet. In another tech improvement, census workers will use an iPhone and an app called ECaSE when they pound the pavement following up with the folks who don’t deem to answer the bureau’s first summons. Long term, this approach is expected to be more inclusive and also cost less than the previous paper and postage methodology.

Could an online census derail democracy?

In our hacker- and propagandist-rich society, Internet links to census forms could go very wrong. The possibility of fake or duplicate forms, malicious misinformation, phishing attempts and even bogus websites posing as the bureau are all issues. The workaround: The bureau is working with social media companies like Google and has developed a Primary Selection Algorithm it’s keeping under wraps to deny hackers a head start. It will also work with Homeland Security to use a system to monitor malicious activity on government networks.

To educate and warn the general public, the bureau will issue PSAs, some of them also digital, elaborating on how to avoid phishing schemes. The public will be warned that no census would ever require you to divulge information like your social security number, for example, nor would census takers ever call you or send you an email.

But that’s all pretty theoretical since budget cuts canceled the field tests in 2017. The new tech has only been tested in one remote location, too, so no one knows if rural folks who are off the grid will be able to use the revamped data collection methods.

In the final analysis, no amount of electronic wizardry will ever get urban residents in swiftly-changing neighborhoods to answer a census unless they understand how it is part of the bigger picture of civic engagement. Ironically, the hard-to-reach respondent pools are known for their dedication to civic engagement and their quest to have input. If the Census Burea can convey why census participation matters, the online census might have a chance.