The 2020 Census is set to take place at a time of political turmoil, when Americans are experiencing a crisis in confidence in federal institutions. Unfortunately, the census is likely to exacerbate that crisis, because the Trump administration has enlisted it in the work of maintaining Republican political control. Signs of the administration’s strategy emerged in May, when John Thompson, director of the Census Bureau and a 27-year veteran of the agency, resigned over a congressional budget forecast he said was inadequate. The proposed cuts would undermine efforts to expand access — getting the word out to undercounted communities or experimenting with online responses. Those warning bells rang louder in December when news broke that President Trump would appoint as deputy director Thomas Brunell, a political scientist who has defended Republican gerrymandering tactics in court. Then, two weeks ago, ProPublica reported that administration officials have asked to include a new question about citizenship status — an addition clearly aimed at scaring immigrants away from participating and being counted. This should concern every American.
An accurate count of the American people is the foundation of much of our politics: Everything from the allocation of congressional seats to billions of dollars in federal funds is determined by how many heads are counted and where. What questions are asked can also have profound consequences. So perhaps it isn’t surprising that Trump, like his predecessors, is trying to game the census for political gain.
But such efforts to manipulate the census have not always worked. A massive bureaucratic endeavor, the census demonstrates the power of the national government — and highlights the limits of its power in the hundreds of minute decisions made by those doing the counting and the individuals to be counted.