On Wednesday, the Census Bureau released its biannual study of voting patterns in federal elections, which included a remarkable finding: African-American voter turnout surpassed that of white, non-Hispanic voters in 2012 for the first time in recent memory, perhaps ever. USA Today ran this news on the front page, and the report received write-ups in every other major national newspaper. There’s only one problem: That landmark may have been passed four years ago. Or maybe not at all. The uncertainty stems from the fact that the data the census used to create this report has what several experts consider a major hole in it: Data on whether people voted is collected every other November in a supplement to the Current Population Survey, a regular government survey of about 60,000 households. If respondents decline to say whether or not they voted, or if the interviewer does not ask, it is assumed that they did not vote.
According to detailed tables released yesterday, 61.8 percent of those surveyed said they voted, 25.4 percent said they did not, and 12.8 percent did not respond. The census figures combine the second two categories.
As a result, the data appears, at first glance, to generally agree with other methods of measuring voter turnout. The Federal Election Commission reports that 129,067,662 people voted for president in the last election, while the census estimates that 132.9 million people voted—the sort of modest 3 percent difference that one might expect from a survey. (There are, of course, reasons to suspect that the FEC figure is also not perfectly accurate.)
It is only by assuming that all people who did not answer the survey did not vote, however, that the census is able to produce estimates in line with ballot totals. Were it to omit nonresponses, as most surveys do, it would end up with figures that were drastically higher than what the FEC reports.
“They are literally cheating to make it look more accurate,” says Jon Krosnick, a polling expert at Stanford who has worked with the Census Bureau. “They have been doing it for a long time.”