Trump campaign taps census question as a fund-raising tool

How tech can save money for 2020 census

As part of a fundraising effort, the Trump-Pence reelection campaign is pushing for the addition of question on the 2020 Census that would ask respondents whether or not they are U.S. citizens.

"The President wants the 2020 United States Census to ask people whether or not they are citizens," states the new fundraising email. "In another era, this would be COMMON SENSE." Washington Post columnist Catherine Rampell  called attention to the email in a March 19 tweet.

Adding the new question at this late date, some census experts say, could drive up costs and degrade the accuracy of the final count.

Phil Sparks, co-director of the watchdog group the Census Project, warned that "adding an untested citizenship question at this late date will both increase costs and lessen participation on this once-a-decade exercise in American democracy."

The Department of Justice already requested that the Census Bureau add the citizenship question to the questionnaire for the first time since 1950, citing the need to "fully enforce" violations of the Voting Rights Act.

Some critics took the fundraising email as a sign the decision has not only been made, but done so primarily for political purposes.

"It's hard to see how the use of this unusual, untested, and unnecessary request to change the census questionnaire for fundraising purposes advances the goal of a fair and accurate count," said Indivar Dutta-Gupta, co-executive director of Georgetown Law's Center on Poverty and Inequality. "Instead, it suggests that the administration may not have been truthful in claiming that their motivation was to enforce the Voting Rights Act," he said.

In a letter to John Gore, the political appointee who heads DOJ's Civil Rights Division, Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee wrote they had "serious doubts" about the need for such a question.

"We are deeply troubled not just by the request to add a citizenship question, but by the impact that such a question would have on the accuracy of the 2020 Census," the senators wrote. "We are concerned that the addition of a citizenship question will depress participation among immigrants and those who live in mixed-status households."

Playing catch-up

The Census Bureau is already scrambling to catch up on the development and testing of its IT systems and as it prepares for a census that leans on more tech than ever before. The fundraising message comes just 12 days before the bureau must submit to Congress the final questions that will appear on the 2020 questionnaire.

As the Census Bureau kicks off its critical dress rehearsal for the decennial count, persisting issues — funding, IT systems development, a lack of permanent leadership and concerns over low response rates — continue to face the federal government's largest civilian undertaking.

"I'm more worried now than I have been," said Terri Ann Lowenthal, who has provided census oversight as a congressional aide, presidential transition team member and private consultant for four decennial counts.

"There are challenges to every census," she said, but added that this time around, "there are unprecedented factors that taken together could create this perfect storm in 2020."

The bureau has been operating without a permanent director or deputy director — both politically appointed positions — since former director John Thompson’s retirement took effect in June 2017 and former deputy director Nancy Potok was named U.S. chief statistician before Inauguration Day.

The bureau plans for the 2020 Census to be the most high-tech to date, and will use 52 IT systems in the decennial count -- 44 of which will need to be tested during the dress rehearsal. However, the readiness of those systems has been a longstanding concern.

Atri Kalluri, chief of the bureau's Decennial Information Technology Division, told FCW at a March 16 Information Security and Privacy Advisory Board meeting Census has “released 40 of the 44 systems.”

"They are now in testing, and a major portion of the 40 systems have been actually deployed for internet self-response and the associated data collection," he said.

Facing concerns over cybersecurity and data privacy, Kalluri said he was "very confident" about the systems' success in 2018, but added, "we really need to see how the response rates are and how the people react."

Thompson said that while securing funding for fiscal year 2018 is important, "it’s even more important for [fiscal year 2019]." The White House's fiscal year 2019 budget proposed $3.8 billion in Census funding, a number experts consider too low.

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross is testifying before House Appropriators on March 20, and will almost certainly face questions about the bureau's progress in preparing for the 2020 population count.

Underfunding over the past several years — and the continued funding uncertainties — have already prompted Census to pare down field tests, ballooning late-decade costs , as well as the deferral of critical partnership and communications programs that build trust in local communities and help boost participation rates.

Among the main activities in fiscal year 2019 are hiring census-takers, the partnership and communications programs, any corrections needed based on the results of the 2018 test and final preparations for 2020.

About the Author

Chase Gunter is a former FCW staff writer.


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