Every 10 years, the United States sets about trying to figure out—precisely—how many people actually live here. And, while the count starts in March 2020, the process (and the controversy) has already begun. Here, we answer five questions about what the census is and how it will impact Colorado.

What exactly is the census?

The census is nearly as old as the country itself. The first-ever official count of American residents—or, at that time, free white males over the age of 16—started in 1790 and has happened each decade since. The decennial survey tracks the country’s population growth and demographic changes. It also informs how federal monies are doled out, the number of representatives each state has in the House, how congressional districts are drawn, and the breakdown of the electoral college. In other words, the census—and its accuracy—is fundamental to the function of our democracy.

The whole endeavor is a years’ long process and—at an estimated cost of $15.6 billion—it’s an expensive one, too. Much of the early work gears up local organizations for outreach to historically undercounted communities, including immigrants, children under five, people recently released from prison, non-citizens, refugees, mixed documentation-status families, people who distrust the government, and those experiencing homelessness.

How will Colorado reach out to overlooked populations?

The state of Colorado and the city of Denver have formed their own Complete Count Committees to reach out to many of these communities. The city’s 13 subcommittees have brought in leaders from the Native American, prison re-entry, and faith realms—among many others—to spread the word about the importance of submitting your questionnaire and its impact it has on society.

“We want folks to hear about the census from people they already trust,” says Kaye Kavanagh, census coordinator and spokesperson for Denver’s Complete Count Committee. “It’s important that people get information from their peers—people who look like them, speak the same language, come from the same background—rather than someone from the government.”

Naturally, public trust is paramount to an accurate count. That’s one reason that the U.S. Census Bureau foregoes a citizenship question—it could deter non-citizens as well as residents in households with non-citizens from filling out the Census at all. This year, however, that precedent was in question when Sec. Wilbur Ross, head of the U.S. Department of Commerce, which oversees the U.S. Census Bureau, suggested adding a citizenship question to the 2020 questionnaire.

In June, the U.S. Supreme Court blocked the citizenship question from appearing on next year’s survey in a 5–4 decision. Though Ross, who was appointed by President Donald Trump, argued that a citizenship question would help reinforce the Voting Rights Act, Justice Elena Kagan called that reasoning “contrived,” while Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr. stated there was “a significant mismatch between the decision the Secretary made and the rationale he provided.”

The implication was that the question would be added to handicap states with high immigrant populations, as census numbers affect their funding, representatives in Congress, and electoral college votes. Though the citizenship question continues to be a vital conversation in other ways, the SCOTUS decision reaffirmed that the purpose of the census is to count inhabitants, not citizens, of all 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.

How does the Census Bureau keep information private?

Despite public concerns about sharing the information, the Bureau has a strictly enforced the 72-year-rule of confidentiality. “The U.S.Census Bureau is statistical agency, not an enforcement agency, and we want everyone to respond,” Mike Friedrich, a spokesperson for the U.S. Census Bureau, said in an email. “Bureau employees take an oath to protect this personal information for life.”

In fact, in 1980, four FBI agents entered the Census Bureau’s Colorado Springs office with a warrant for its data and were denied. Not the police, the FBI, or even the president can access identifying specifics (names, addresses, and so on) from census data—and anyone who breaks that law can be fined up to $250,000 and spend five years in prison. The 72-year-rule ensures that the survey’s information is sealed until 72 years later—in the case of the 2020 census, 2092—at which point it will be available in the National Archives.

How and when will the census get started?

The Bureau is moving the cumbersome task into the 21st century with a seismic shift from paper and phone surveys—which will still be an option—to a digital-first approach. The Bureau is actually quite progressive in this way, having first used an electronic counting machine in 1890, then adopting one of the first-ever commercially produced computers in the 1950s.

The count will officially begin in March 2020, with a first batch of postcards mailed to residents with a URL and phone number where heads of households can complete the survey. Follow-up postcards to non-responders will be sent soon after, and Community Action Agencies, outreach programs, and community spaces (think: hospitals, churches, and recreation centers) will be readied to help tardy respondents submit their survey, potentially even having paper forms or computers on hand where people can fill out the census there, similar to a voting center. (You can see a sample of the paper form for the 2020 census here, and read the whole tentative timeline for it here.)

The move toward a digital archive of census data raises questions about cybersecuritywhat exactly is being done to prevent hacking by China or Russia, and how much of the 2020 census budget is going toward cybersecurity?many of which remain unanswered.

How will the census impact Colorado?

Money and how it is spent: The census count helps distribute more than $13 billion annually to the Centennial State, which works out to be about $2,300 per person. The money funnels through 55 federal spending programs, including Medicaid, Highway Planning and Construction, the School Breakfast Program, student loans, and affordable housing. Census data is also used by local businesses, institutions, nonprofits, and even schools to make decisions about where services are needed. “It influences things like how many teachers are hired to teach kindergarten, or where we put the next elementary school—and we only have one time a decade to get that right,” says Kavanagh. “If we miss a bunch of folks, we’re going to short-change everyone in the state.”

Representation: Colorado currently has seven congressional districts, and thus seven elected officials in the U.S. House of Representatives. The census is what determines how many representatives of the House’s 435 each state gets. (Colorado, for example, picked up a seventh seat after the 2000 Census). Some people predict that the state will pick up an eighth seat thanks its population increase. This is another reason an accurate count is so critical. 

“The Census is the backbone of our democracy,” says Amanda Gonzalez, the director at Colorado Colorado chapter of Common Cause, a nonpartisan organization that promotes transparency and accountability in government. “My representative should be accountable to as many people as your representative is—and that can’t happen if the count is inaccurate.” There is really no way of knowing what will happen until all the results are in, but the Brennan Center for Justice did make this interesting map of possible congressional reapportionment based on other census data (the Bureau has dozens of smaller surveys in addition to its mandated decennial one).

Relatedly, the census is also used to divvy up electoral votes. There are 528 total electors in the U.S., and they are divided based on populations (remember: 270 equal a majority win). It’s also been suggested that the Centennial State could go from its current nine electoral votes to 10—depending on whether or not Colorado picks up another House seat. 

Redistricting: Whether or not we get another congressional district, districts will be redrawn based on changes to the population. How districts are drawn is important, as it will determine what types of candidates end up in Washington, D.C., representing those constituents. This is where gerrymandering—i.e. the drawing of congressional districts in such a way that it benefits one political party or politician—comes in. The best way to avoid gerrymandering? Have someone besides the politicians make the maps.

In November 2018, Coloradans approved Amendment Y, which will form a 12-person independent commission to redraw the state’s districts. The bill, which was drafted and passed with the help of Colorado Common Cause, is meant to prevent gerrymandering. Applications for the commission, which will include four Republicans, four Democrats, and four unaffiliated voters, are due November 10 and open to the public. 

“Fundamentally, people should choose their politicians and not the other way around,” says Gonzalez. “Map drawing is both an art and science. Commissions and applicant pools should reflect the diverse makeup of Colorado—that’s how you get the most independent results.” The goal will be to create a commission with members reflective of the state’s cultural, geographical, and economic nuances. Commissioners will be picked by three retired state judges. 

In short, the census is a multi-billion dollar, multi-year endeavor to count the nation’s more than 325 million inhabitants, and the entirety of its influence would be impossible to quantify. “We all need to work together—government, businesses, community orgs—because if there isn’t an accurate count it has negative effects not just now but for the next decade,” says Gonzalez. “It’s the one part of our democracy that everybody participates in.”

Jerilyn Forsythe
Jerilyn Forsythe
Jerilyn Forsythe is a freelance writer and editor, and 5280's former digital associate editor. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter @jlforsyt.