Census Day, April 1, is almost upon us, and you are legally obligated to participate in it. But if you don’t want to do it over the phone, through the mail, or wait for the census takers to show up on your doorstep, we have good news for you.
It’s 2020, and the census is now online — or at least there’s an online option. Let’s look at how this modernized version of America’s greatest survey will work and what it means.
Is this the first online US census?
While the 2020 census has been billed in some places as the first-ever American census with an online submissions, including on the census’s own website, this is not quite true. The 2000 census also had an online response option, but it wasn’t publicized.
Perhaps as a result, only 63,000 households ended up filling out the 2000 census online. The low response rate was intentional, allowing it to serve as a test run for the 2010 census. Despite the Census Bureau declaring it to be an “operational success,” the 2010 census didn’t have an online submission option at all. Now, in 2020, the plan is for the majority of responses to come through the online form.
So 2020 might not be the first online American census, but it is America’s first digital census.
How will it work?
Assuming that everything goes to plan — and when it comes to government websites, that isn’t guaranteed — filling out the census online is supposed to be very simple.
Right around now, you should get something in the mail with a 12-digit census ID (here’s a sample). That letter will instruct you to go to www.my2020census.gov, click “start questionnaire,” enter your census ID, and then answer all the questions about your name, address, who lives in your household, etc. And no, you will not be asked about your citizenship status. You can also respond to your census letter by mail or phone.
You should do all this by the April 1 deadline, or you’ll get reminder letters until a census taker might ultimately show up at your door and make you do it.
If you don’t have a census ID because you either don’t want to wait for it to come in the mail or it just never came at all, you can still fill the online form out. Just go to the website and navigate to the “if you do not have a Census ID, click here” button on the log-in page. You’ll have to answer a few additional questions about your address, but you should be able to complete the census after that.
If you’re still lost, the Census Bureau also put out a very detailed video on how to complete the online census that might help:
Hopefully, the online census will be able to handle large amounts of traffic. Just last month, the Government Accountability Office warned that the site could have “performance issues” if too many people use it at the same time. So good luck with that.
How else is the latest census futuristic?
The 2020 census has also incorporated some new behind-the-scenes technology to cut down on the number of human workers and, therefore, the cost involved.
In 2010, census takers were supposed to use custom-made handheld devices to survey non-respondents. Those plans were scrapped when it became apparent that the corresponding app wouldn’t be ready in time. What did work were the GPS-equipped devices field workers used to verify addresses before the census forms went out. This was all done in person 10 years ago, but this time around, much of that work is being done using satellite images instead. Census workers compare images taken 10 years ago with recent ones; if there’s a significant difference (new streets or homes added or removed), field workers are sent to check them out.
And the Census Bureau is going to give handheld devices for census takers another try. This time, they’ll get iPhone 8 devices equipped with an app the census developed with Pegasystems. Pega says it has been working with the Census Bureau on the app since 2016 and “extensively” tested it throughout the process. The company also has years of experience working with governments on software, so it sounds like this app will fare much better than the 2010 devices that never made it out of the gate or the much-maligned 2020 Iowa caucus app, which was hastily made by a company with little experience, time, or funding to complete the job.
Is all this safe?
Obviously, cybersecurity is a concern with this census. As the Washington Post points out, the government doesn’t have the best record when it comes to functional websites with adequate security from hackers. And there have been attacks on other countries’ censuses before.
In 2016, Australia’s census site was hit with a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack, forcing it to shut down for almost two days. The Census Bureau says it’s taking cybersecurity precautions seriously; it’s partnering with the private sector including Microsoft’s Defending Democracy Program and using Amazon Web Service’s cloud service to store the data (hopefully having fixed some of the security issues that were identified by the Office of the Inspector General). The Census Bureau is also working with the Department of Homeland Security.
While the Census Bureau insists that 2020 will be a “secure and successful count,” the Government Accountability Office said last month that the bureau “continues to face significant cybersecurity challenges, including those related to addressing cybersecurity weaknesses in a timely manner.”
We won’t know how serious these security threats are until the census truly gets underway, and counting the estimated 330 million people in this country begins. With over $800 billion in government spending and congressional seats riding on the results, let’s hope they’re accurate.
Regardless, you can do your part to ensure this by filling out your own census form — online or otherwise — as soon as the invitation shows up in your mailbox.
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