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You’ve got mail: And don’t forget to reply… to the census

By the end of this week, millions of households will have received an invitation to complete the 2020 census, the first one ever to rely on an online tool for most responses.

The majority of the country will get a postcard with an address-specific ID number needed to complete the questionnaire through an online portal that launches Thursday. Some households in internet-starved areas will get a paper questionnaire.

The online option represents the most public portion of a series of innovations for this year’s census. The federal government has invested more than $15 billion in the once-in-a-decade count, which has high stakes for the distribution of 435 congressional seats, $1.5 trillion in federal spending and countless private business decisions.

[Census effort gets $7.6 billion funding, ‘friended’ by Facebook]

On Tuesday, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, whose department oversees the Census Bureau, told Congress the agency is on budget and on time for the process, which will allow people to respond online, on paper or by phone. Ross noted the agency has a 24/7 “fusion center” and a $2 billion contingency fund ready to respond to problems like the pandemic caused by the COVID-19 virus.

“We’ve done as much as we can to be ready for whatever contingencies come up, whether coronavirus, whether weather, whether what have you,” Ross told lawmakers during a House Commerce-Justice-Science Appropriations Subcommittee hearing.

The Census Bureau expects more than half the country to respond to the census on their own, primarily through the online portal. Residents who fail to respond will eventually get paid a home visit by a census worker.

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The new and the unexpected

The online portion is one aspect of more than $5 billion the agency has spent in information technology, which includes digitized address listing, outreach tools and workplace management tools. Ross and others have said the agency has worked with top cybersecurity officials to secure its online portals against attacks like one that crippled Australia’s 2017 census or technical failures like the Healthcare.gov rollout in 2013.

“In today’s world, no one can give 100 percent assurance we won’t be hacked but we can give as much assurance we can give anyone,” Ross said.

The agency has two systems it can switch between for online response, and Ross said they have millions of extra physical forms in case both go down. Census Bureau officials said the online response system can handle 600,000 concurrent users, several times the expected load.

However, the agency made the decision a few weeks ago to switch between the two for its primary online response tool, a move the Government Accountability Office called risky. The Commerce Department’s Inspector General has also found fault in the Census Bureau’s preparations, as well as hiring practices in the lead-up to the count.

The agency has admitted to missing hiring goals in earlier phases of the process. It still needs an additional 350,000 temporary workers for the upcoming door-knocking phase to count households that don’t respond on their own, a task that may prove challenging because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Public trust

The Census Bureau acknowledges it faces a series of challenges in getting residents to respond.

The agency’s plans include dealing with a long-term trend of falling government response rates, but members of Congress and activists say a fight over adding a citizenship question to the census made things worse.

Ross and the Trump administration fought for more than a year to add the question before a Supreme Court decision in July prompted the president to drop the issue. Despite that, several recent surveys show most people still believe the census will include a citizenship question.

Democrats in Congress have argued the failed citizenship question may have sabotaged the census process. The National Association of Latino Elected Officials and other census partners agree that the question will depress responses among households with immigrants.

Arturo Vargas, head of NALEO Educational Fund, told Congress earlier this year that fears over the citizenship question have been “exacerbated by a hostile environment to immigrants that is perpetuated by the administration.”

The Census Bureau has also faced criticism for its response to a series of fundraising mailers sent out by the Republican National Committee that look like census forms. Ross argued the Commerce Department doesn’t have the legal authority to stop the RNC and noted Facebook took one down from the Trump reelection campaign last week.

“I don’t have any influence or control over the RNC or any ads the RNC chooses to run,” Ross said.

House Democrats have pushed Ross and other administration officials for months to address the mailers. Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Mich., called Ross’ answers “confusing and unacceptable,” and pointed out Congress passed a law banning such mailers in 2010.

The RNC has maintained the mailers clearly note who they are from and include information about donation limits.

For households the Census Bureau misses, residents may be counted through administrative records or left out entirely.

That’s happened before; the 2010 census missed more than one million children, African American, Native American and other minority residents. Previous censuses missed more, and organizations like the Urban Institute warned this cycle may have similar undercounts.

The Census Bureau started a network of state and local governments, as well as nonprofits and the business community to help spread the word about the count. The government also footed the bill for a $500 million advertising campaign to promote the count.

Now the agency awaits as America’s households respond.

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