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The 2020 Census and Citizenship

Importance of the count

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  • The U.S. census is 7 basic questions for citizens to answer and submit. [U.S. Census Bureau]

  • It is an attempt by the federal government to count every person living in the country.

  • Article I, Section II of the U.S. Constitution mandates the census to happen every 10 years to help reapportion seats in the House of Representatives. [U.S. Census Bureau]

  • The census is overseen by the U.S. Census Bureau under the direction of the Commerce Department. [NPR]

  • The census also includes the American Community Survey (ACS), which is an extension of the basic 7 questions. [U.S. Census Bureau] The ACS is about 60 questions and is protected under law. [The Washington Post]

the census
  • The Department of Justice (DOJ) proposed including a citizenship question within the next 2020 census. [The New York Times]
  • Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross approved the request.
  • The citizenship question would ask: "Is this person a citizen of the United States?"
  • The question caused more than two dozen states to file a lawsuit to remove the question and is now being heard by the Supreme Court. [PBS News]
  • The census has not asked all U.S. households about citizenship since 1950. [Pew Research]
citizenship questionNPR

Proposed citizenship question included in the 2020 census



The count "underpin[s] government programs" by distributing over $800 billion in federal funds across the states. [The Washington Post] The census helps the government make critical decisions like where to place schools, how to staff veterans' hospitals, and how to plan for emergencies in every town and city in the country. [NPR] It helps direct funding for public health programs, public education, and transportation networks. [Vox]


Private companies use census data to understand where to build shopping centers and new housing developments. [U.S. Census Bureau] Non-profits use it to help estimate potential volunteers, redirect or expand services, and to inform strategic planning.


A lack of funding for essentials in a community could happen if an undercount or miscount occurs.


Voting Rights Act

The DOJ says it needs a better count of voting-age citizens in order to enforce against racial discrimination. Specifically, the DOJ stated it needs the data to help enforce the Voting Rights Act. [NPR]


Commerce Department Secretary Wilbur Ross who oversees the census has also echoed this sentiment. [The Atlantic]



American Community Survey

The American Community Survey (ACS) already includes a question about citizenship. The ACS reaches only 2% of the population [Pew Research]. 


Supporters believe including the question in the census could help reach more Americans.



The U.N.

The United Nations (U.N.) supports including a citizenship question in a country's census. [WBUR]



Policy decisions

Some believe knowing how many undocumented individuals are in the country could help inform government decisions, including funding and appropriations.



The U.S. Census Bureau previously found negative effects on participation (miscount) when a question of citizenship was included in the count. They found it was "highly likely" that illegal immigrants living in the U.S. would not complete the census. [U.S. Census Bureau




Those living in the country illegally have expressed fear about completing the citizenship question. They fear the government will then know where they live and share the information with the Department of Homeland Security and ICE. [NPR]




The census impacts how many congressional seats are assigned to each state, as seats are based on population.


Some worry that the question will negatively affect states whose population has grown due to illegal migration. If a miscount occurs, those states will not have an accurate representation in the U.S. Congress. [The Brennan Center for Justice



Shady reasons

Some believe the response to the question will be used to help other efforts not related to voting. For example, in 2004, the Census Bureau gave the Department of Homeland Security specific information on where Arab-Americans lived. [The New York Times]



Bi-partisan support

Both Republicans and Democrats have cautioned against the question, as they are worried about a miscount or undercount. [The Washington Post]


  • The census needs to be printed by July 1, 2019. [USA Today

  • After the Trump administration announced the decision, the Census Bureau director, John Thompson, stepped down.

  • The Democratic National Convention (DNC) filed a subpoena to force the Bureau to release internal documents about the decision to add. [NPR]

  • June 2017: The Census Bureau released those internal documents, which revealed internal warnings about including the citizenship question. [House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform]

  • July 2018: District judge confirmed doubt from 18 states, stating in his opinion that the question is not necessary to help enforce the Voting Rights Act. [The Atlantic]

  • January 2019: A federal judge in New York ordered the administration to remove the citizenship question from the 2020 census. [NPR

  • March 2019: Second federal judge ruled the question was unconstitutional. [NPR]
  • June 2019: The Supreme Court ruled the citizenship question violates the law. [Brennan Center for Justice]


  • The 2020 census will count same-sex couples for the first time. [Pew Research Center]
  • In 1790, President George Washington complained about an undercounting. [The Washington Post] With all the advances of 21st-century technology, how is it possible that the complaints of the 18th-century still ring true? 
  • Do you feel enough marketing or public awareness has been completed by the government for an accurate count to happen in 2020?
  • It cost $13 billion to complete the 2010 census. [U.S. Census Bureau] Is there a more effective and cost-effective way to complete the census?
  • Infants and toddlers are counted by the census and are undercounted. Read more about why California is pushing to change that.
  • Get more information on the count from the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Key Vocabulary