Political Officials Interfered with Scientific Processes in 2020 Census

Published Oct 13, 2022

What Happened: Documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act revealed that political appointees at the Census Bureau interfered with the 2020 census by altering technical aspects that could have caused inaccurate US population estimates.

Why It Matters: Political officials tried to pressure bureau experts to jeopardize the collection and analysis of high-quality census data. By interfering with the methodologies that experts in the Census Bureau have developed to collect accurate data, political officials undermined the process we use to develop the census.

In September 2020, Census Bureau senior experts sent an email to the Department of Commerce with concerns that political appointees had “an unusually high degree of engagement in technical matters,” revealing that career officials at the Census Bureau were pressured by political appointees to alter numerous scientific and technical aspects of the 2020 census. Specifically, political appointees pressed bureau experts to use of estimates to fill in missing population data – a methodology not supported by the best available science – and pressured career staff to take shortcuts to undermine population totals, data processing decisions, and protections concerning the privacy of census participants.

Interference with the 2020 census exemplifies how the Trump administration frequently prioritized politics over science. The population estimates from the 2020 census are used for reapportionment, the process of reallocating House districts among the 50 states. Furthermore, the census exists as the single largest scientific undertaking of the US government and is utilized by all sectors of economy; the data is used to weigh and design sampling surveys that provide information for the medical industry, business owners use census-derived information to make employment decisions, and market analysis vendors repackage and augment this data when they provide materials such as consumer reports. Given the importance of census data, there are likely few areas that would not feel the impact of low-quality census data. The Trump administration’s attempts to undermine the 2020 census could have additionally led to changes that misrepresented population estimates, exacerbating long-standing disparities observed in previous decades where communities of color were more likely to be undercounted than majority-white communities. This in turn will undermine the ability of communities of color to press their political officials to make needed changes at the local level by diluting the power of their vote.

The email also highlighted concerns over President Trump’s July 2020 presidential memo, which stated plans to exclude undocumented immigrants from House reapportionment population estimates. When Bureau officials attempted to contact the Secretary for the Department of Commerce Wilbur Ross to express their science-based concerns, Ross did not respond and claimed he had no knowledge of the President’s memo.

Previously, political appointees tried to pressure career experts at the Census Bureau to include an additional question in the 2020 census about citizenship status, an issue we previously highlighted as an attack on science. The intention behind adding this question – which did not go through the normal rigorous scientific process for adding questions to the census – was to separately calculate the undocumented populations in each state; this type of question had not been included in the US census since 1950. Asking census participants to disclose their citizenship status could create intimidation for undocumented populations who may choose to not participate out of fear, leaving wider gaps in data collection.

The census provides periodic and comprehensive statistics about the nation’s population and is guided by a robust scientific methodology. Census data is not only an incredibly valuable resource for social scientists, but provides benchmark comparison data for the biomedical sciences, cancer registries, and assessments of environmental harms. By working to diminish the quality of 2020 census data, the Trump administration may have adversely impacted the fields of social and medical science for the next ten years or more.

The methods that underline the census requires objectivity in data collection and a commitment to the scientific method to produce credible census data. Political appointees jeopardized the livelihoods of underrepresented communities, especially in undocumented communities, that could benefit from the census by the way of fair representation in the government and equitable distribution of federal resources, instead prioritizing the opportunity for political gain. The Census Bureau has a responsibility to develop their methodologies and processes in a way that provides reliable data that accurately represents the nation’s population, and by undermining this basic duty of the government, the Trump administration codified a less scientifically census that will have major repercussions on political representation of communities across the nation, especially in communities of color and other underserved communities.