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As the result of my work as a student assistant and as an intern for an outreach effort by our neighbor State of California to achieve as complete and accurate a count of people in that State as possible in the 2020 federal census, I learned a good deal about the federal census—which is conducted every 10 years—and its importance to States, education funding, and political power.

Preparatory work on the 2020 census is now underway, and counts will take place very soon. Between March 12 and March 20, invitations—mostly by postcard—to complete the census online will be disseminated, and April 1st is the actual “Census Day.”

This piece is written to share with readers of the Nevada Sagebrush some of the essential things I learned, and to strongly urge all University of Nevada students to be counted, and in the right place. As will be discussed below, the stakes are high, and being counted will help the State, and the university as well.

The Founding Fathers of the United States thought the task of counting all of the people living in the country—whether citizens or not—was so important that they required such a count as part of the U.S. Constitution. The Constitution mandates a count of people in the United States every 10 years. The census is mentioned in Article 1, Section 2, and states that “[An] Enumeration shall be made within three years after the first meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent term of ten years, in such manner as they shall by law direct.”

The first national census was conducted in 1790, almost 230 years ago. The current law, in Title XIII of the U.S. Code—which is entitled “Census”—requires that a census be conducted on or about April 1, 1980, and every ten years/decennial after that. And the censuses conducted every ten years are to provide an actual “headcount” of all inhabitants—the entire population—in the United States, irrespective of citizenship. The Federal Bureau of the Census, which is under the U.S. Department of Commerce, is responsible for collecting and compiling the population statistics. Separate reports will be made as to each State. In addition to state-by-state reports, the census will provide a snapshot of American life and its population as of April 1, 2020.

The Total Population Numbers are a big deal for a number of reasons. Census counts are directly tied to the equitable distribution of significant federal monies that states—and local governments and communities—receive for a number of important services, such as affordable housing funding and support, education funding, health care, employment training, various social services and programs like Medicaid, Head Start, and the National School Lunch Program, transportation and infrastructure projects, and other community development opportunities. 

Because political representation is based on population, the census counts also impact a state’s political power. The census data is relied on exclusively for the number of representatives each state gets in Congress, and the number of votes each state gets in the Electoral College. Also, census results are used to determine and draw legislative districts for federal, state, and local representatives.

Research has shown that the census has historically undercounted some people who live in the United States, especially in certain underserved minority and immigrant communities.  These communities have been referred to by some as “hard-to-count” groups. A number of experts believe that such communities are afraid of the government and are—or may be—reluctant to participate in the federal census.

Regarding the heavily debated and litigated citizenship question, which would have been added to the census forms by the Trump administration and would have asked respondents whether or not they are a U.S. citizen, the administration had contended that the “Enumeration” clause in the Constitution and the “Census Law” granted the Commerce Secretary extremely broad authority over the census. They further asserted that the citizenship question would help the federal government more effectively enforce the Voting Rights Act by providing information on citizens of voting age. 

While the census information cannot be shared with immigration or law enforcement officials, a number of state officials and others opposed to the question believed a census inquiry on citizenship status would—or could—lead to a dramatic undercount of certain minorities and immigrants fearful of being targeted by the government.

            Litigation against the question reached the U.S. Supreme Court this past summer. The Court concluded, by a narrow five to four decision, that the Trump administration gave a false and contrived justification—the Voting Rights Act—for adding the citizenship question to the 2020 census. Evidence produced at the lower court level, and reviewed by the Supreme Court, showed that the clear intent of the administration was to discourage illegal immigrants from responding to census questionnaires.

            The Supreme Court, however, gave the Trump Administration an opportunity to present a lawful rationale to add a question on citizenship. Despite that opportunity and President Trump’s statements that he would fight to include such a question on the census questionnaire, he ultimately decided to retreat and not include the question in the 2020 census.

            Rather, President Trump issued an executive order requiring all federal agencies to provide the Department of Commerce with records and documents—including those from existing databases—from which they can compile a tally of the number of citizens and non-citizens living in the United States.

            It is not certain if the executive action regarding citizenship and non-citizenship numbers, outside of the census, will reduce participation in the 2020 census. And it is also not certain what affect threatened and actual raids by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement will have on census counts. The important thing for people to know is that their census data is both protected and confidential.

Since 1790, census takers have followed the concept of “usual residence” as the primary principle in determining where people should be counted.Without going into all of the variations and nuances of what the residence rule entails, the 2020 census will count people at their usual residence, which is “the place where they live and sleep most of the time”—on or around April 1, 2020.

College students living away from their parental homes while attending school will be counted at the on-campus or off-campus residence where they reside a majority of the time. It does not matter if students visit their parents on breaks and holidays. For most University of Nevada students, the “usual residence” will mean someplace in Nevada and likely relatively close to the University. Thus, even though students may live in more than one place, and may live outside of Reno or Nevada for part of the year, they will be counted at the residence where they sleep and live a majority of their time.

For the upcoming census count, the Census Bureau is making a number of changes to its count operations, and they include an online/Internet—and/or phone—response. In the past, individuals primarily responded to the census through a written questionnaire. During the 2020 census effort, individuals will be encouraged to respond to the census online, and not everyone—or all households—will receive a mailed census questionnaire. The Census Bureau has indicated that it would like to have more than 55 percent of respondents “self-respond” through the Internet. People will also have the option to respond by phone through a “Census Questionnaire Assistance Center.” Thus, for the first time, individuals can respond online, by telephone, or by mail.  

As noted above, the census counts were mandated by our nation’s Founders. Understanding the population of the United States was seen as being tied and important to our way of government. Everyone living in the country benefits from complete and accurate census counts.

The stakes for Nevada are high, in terms of education funding, representative democracy, the distribution of federal resources, and important demographic data. Because of the importance of the census data to the State of Nevada, localities, and the University, it is important that University of Nevada students make certain that they are counted.

Seth Bell is a third year student studying Political Science. He can be reached at or on Twitter @VinceSagebrush.