On Last Week Tonight, John Oliver examined the state of a process crucial to the function of American democracy: the census, the decennial counting of every single person residing in the United States. “Not just citizens, not just voters – every single person,” said Oliver. “Because only by knowing how many people live where can communities effectively plan to provide things like roads, schools and emergency services.”
The effort behind the census is massive – 250 regional officers, about half a million temporary workers, and notifications by mail to over 140 million households are part of what the Associated Press has called “the largest peacetime operation undertaken by the federal government”.
The next census process begins next year, prompting Oliver to reiterate its importance and the obstacles threatening it, the current administration among them.
The census, Oliver explained, only asks a few basic questions: name, age, sex, race or ethnicity, how many people live in your home, how they are related to one another, and whether you rent or own. “That is essentially it, and yet some people still do not want to engage with the census, partly because nobody really likes filling out surveys, and partly because when the government asks questions, people can get paranoid,” said Oliver.
Participation in the census is “critically important”, Oliver continued, because its data is used to evenly distribute political power through the House of Representatives, allocate federal funds and inform businesses on where to add jobs or open new stores.
Still, Congress has underfunded the census bureau for years, during a time in which preparation is needed to make sure the government’s website – the primary mechanism in the 2020 census – actually works. The census bureau had planned to do three trial runs of its site before the rollout – one in an urban setting, one in a rural setting and one on tribal lands. But due to budget constraints, it ended up only doing one, in Providence county, Rhode Island, without even a marketing budget.
Oliver noted one library which tried to help by offering $5 off late fees to try out the site. According to a Vice News Tonight report, the results were underwhelming, to say the least; one librarian said he saw just one person try out the site on the library’s designated census tablet, “and the coupon was an incentive on that”.
“I actually have a confession here: I am that man,” said Oliver. “I had $233,000 in late fees in Providence, Rhode Island, and now I just have $232,995 and guess what? I’m still not returning the copy of Eat Pray Love that I borrowed in 2004. I just committed the perfect crime. Admitting it on camera probably isn’t ideal, but no fucking regrets.”
The census was always going to be a challenge, Oliver continued, but instead of focusing on the website or outreach, the bureau had to spend time and money fighting “this shit”: the citizenship question.
In 2018, the commerce secretary, Wilbur Ross, announced that the census would include a question on the respondent’s citizenship status, a move even the bureau’s chief scientist said would harm the census’s accuracy. “Because if you have the government, specifically this government, asking people if they are citizens, many may choose not to respond out of fear that the information could be used against them or people in their household,” said Oliver, “despite the fact – and this is really important to know – it is against the law for the bureau to disclose any private information that identifies and individual to anyone,” including the IRS or Ice.
Ross said the question would help enforce the Voting Rights Act – a claim that seemed like “bullshit”, said Oliver, since “voting rights has never seemed exactly like a top priority for this administration”. Indeed, it was bullshit; the estranged daughter of Thomas Hofeller, a Republican redistricting specialist who died last year, later found documents on a hard drive explicitly laying out the plan to use the citizenship question to limit minority voting under the cover of the Voting Rights Act.
Ultimately, the supreme court ruled against the change, and the citizenship question will not be on the 2020 census. But the damage wrought by fear may already be done; experts are worried that an undercount is inevitable, said Oliver, and it could be in the millions.
Which brought Oliver to his main question: “What can we do?” His answer was, first and foremost: fill out the census next year.
“If you don’t want to participate in the census for them, or for yourself, or for your community, I’ll actually give you one more good reason to participate, and that is that it would probably really irritate this guy,” Oliver said over a picture of Donald Trump. “Think about it – his administration already clearly thinks certain people don’t count, so what better way to get back at him than to make sure that you do, and make the census count you.”