Census count

The deadline to complete the census is approaching.

The good news regarding the census is that we’re starting to see census takers walking around neighborhoods, knocking on doors to locate and count residents who didn’t respond to mailings or invitations to participate online.

These short-term public employees are doing their best to make this iteration of America’s important every-10-years tally as accurate as possible. Mandated by the U.S. Constitution, being counted in the census has traditionally been viewed as a kind of civic and historical duty. For as long as civilization survives, being included in the census is like having our names carved in marble: We lived here, we mattered.

Census results determine important matters for each coming decade, from distribution of state resources and $1.5 trillion in annual federal dollars, to where lines are drawn for legislative and congressional districts. An exact count of everyone who lives here — including undocumented immigrants — can make a huge difference in community health.

The bad news about the census is a longer story.

“COVID-19 and rising mistrust of the government on the part of hard-to-reach groups like immigrants and Latinos already had made this census challenging,” the New York Times reported last month.

Sixty-one million households didn’t submit a census form, and must be contacted in person. Further complicating matters, about a third of those hired as census takers have already quit or failed to show up. And now the Trump administration wants to end the count a month early.

This is likely to result in a historically flawed final product, adding one more disaster to the others that will forever necessitate marking 2020 with an asterisk in future record books. “This is truly, truly, hair-on-fire awful,” a census expert said.

Current census officials have an all-round rosier view of the situation, and we must hope they’re right. It’s difficult to imagine a scenario in which the final delivery of a tally to the president by Dec. 31 is postponed, and even harder to imagine a do-over after the pandemic has ended.

Neither is totally out of the question, but would require politically complex changes in weighty matters such as reapportioning congressional and legislative seats for the 2022 election cycle.

More likely, the Census Bureau will be forced to rely more heavily on statistical models and other computational tricks to build a complete picture of the nation’s population from the large sample it will end up with. On Aug. 29, this stood at an estimated 82% of the national total.

Considering that national political polls routinely extrapolate public opinion by questioning about 1,000 individuals, some will argue that a sample size in the many millions is good enough. But this is no comfort to a state or political party that loses or should have gained a congressional seat if the census had been correct.

Challenges in court will litigate every decision the Census Bureau makes in coming months.

The law is clear that the census is supposed to count everyone. Leaving out undocumented immigrants appeals to some, on the basis that states with high numbers of these unofficial residents may unfairly gain an extra vote in Congress or the Legislature, or realize some other advantage from having more people.

If enough citizens share this concern, the right response is to change the law, not fiddle the census numbers. A counterargument can be made that a person is a person — that one way or another, unofficial status usually matures into formal residency, and that many children of today’s undocumented residents already are legal citizens. In some ways, gaining the full benefits of citizenship — and incurring a citizen’s full obligations — depends on being counted.

As any genealogist will tell you, all census results linking names, nationalities and other identifying data with specific addresses are zealously shielded for 72 years after the enumeration date. The census isn’t an underhanded ploy to locate targets for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Not until 2092 will any other agency learn from the Census Bureau that “Person X” lived at “Y address.”

Here in the Pacific Northwest, climate change and other demographic factors promise to bring continuing population growth. To obtain a fair and proportionate share of government largess to cope with this expanding population, it’s all-important that our local count is complete. We otherwise shortchange ourselves for the next decade.

No matter how suspicious anyone is of our government — and we all have our reasons — we should do ourselves the favor of being counted.

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