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A Digital Census Is a Stupid Idea

Let’s be clear: Trump is just trying to change the subject. Again...
by Jim Swift
July 8, 2019
A Digital Census Is a Stupid Idea
(Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

It’s a tale as old the Trump administration: The president screws up something and, instead of fixing it, comes up with a great pivot to change the topic. This week, it’s the census. 

The Supreme Court ruled last month that the Trump administration could not add a question about citizenship to the 2020 census. Census data affects federal funding formulas and congressional reapportionment, gerrymandered as it may be. 

Non-citizen nationals and illegal immigrants drive on roads, take public transportation, and drink water just as citizens do. It makes sense to keep the funding formulas based on realistic population levels, even if the president and congressional Republicans disagree on the presence of those in the country illegally. 

While Trump lost at the Supreme Court, some of his defenders have found hope in the shade of the executive power’s penumbra, but there’s a problem: Trump’s administration bungled this from the beginning. Quelle surprise. Trump’s immigration question is less about good government, and more about providing red meat to his base. 

And so it makes perfect sense that Trump, when asked how his administration would proceed after losing at the Supreme Court, wondered aloud why “we can’t do that through the computers of the world because, frankly, that’s the way you can do a census today and probably a lot more accurately.”

Meanwhile, some Republicans in Congress are suggesting that the president should find a way to ignore the courts. The administration is considering a do-over, and discovery on this matter could be, for lack of a more artful term, a real bitch.

Trump will probably find a way to drag out this fight, lasting years. At worst, it could invalidate the census, requiring a costly recount, at least worst, it could provide further precedent solidifying executive authority, something congressional Republicans used to be concerned about.

But, no, Trump can’t admit his team messed up, and has pivoted to attacking the institution of the census, as CNN’s Daniel Dale reports. Just as he did with the Mueller report when Total Exoneration™ didn’t pan out:

Very few presidents, including and especially our current one, think deeply about the census. It’s wonky. It requires math and statistical methods. But as it relates to his favorite issue, immigration, it’s a useful cudgel to own the libs. Suggesting the census could be done digitally is an immensely stupid idea. And he’s doing it to change the topic, because God forbid our Dear Leader ever made a mistake. 

It may seem counterintuitive, but the census should be conducted via paper and the USPS. (Especially at a time when people are concerned about the integrity of our elections and demanding paper ballots.) Here’s why: 

Unless you’re homeless, and the census has plans to account for that, there is no better indicator of who—and how many people—live at a physical address. And we already have the infrastructure (read: the USPS, IRS, state and local governments.) 

There once was a time when conservatives were, and I’m being totally serious here, concerned that the long-form census was too intrusive. This was, oh, seven or so years ago. And believe me, I’ve been subjected to it. Now, since Obama isn’t president anymore, the question isn’t intrusiveness, but rather “why won’t the libs let us be slightly more intrusive? It’s just one question!” 

Anyways, here’s why a digital census won’t work: physicality is the best indicator of residency. Sure, people lie about their residency for tax purposes. Others do it to make their vote count more (and it almost never does), but for all of the microtargeting this digital age offers us, could you feasibly, more cheaply, and statistically reliably do a digital only census? No.

If you wanted to do this, and this seems like a bad idea for a whole host of reasons, there are a couple major concerns: 

Physicality: It is very hard to prove that an email address is based in one state, let alone a zip code. Much less at a certain address. Given the business/personal segregation of emails—and people have multiple emails—there’s no easy or cheap way for the government to conduct such a broad measure like the census.

Completion: If you got an email purportedly from the government, with a 14-page questionnaire asking deeply personal questions, how would you respond? Report as spam? I thought so. People, rightly, are skeptical of emails asking for personal info like, I don’t know, “How many times has this person been married?” along with your rent costs, toilet count, salary, etc., you’d think it was a scam. And you’d be right to worry about that.

Follow-up: Do you know what happens when you ignore a census form? They send you more of them until you respond. If you don’t? They show up at your door, just like on Saturday Night Live. And no, you can’t claim your bobcat as your wife. How would the federal government, even if it came up with a scheme to reliably perform a census via email, follow-up with non-respondents? You see, you can’t just shrug them off. That throws off the math. So, what next, subpoenas for email providers? Doesn’t that sound a little crazy?

Further, if you don’t want to do it by email, I suppose you could task Internet Service Providers with denying Internet service to people who don’t respond, but be honest, how well would that go over? (Spoiler: not well.) And, there are far more Americans who lack Internet access than are homeless. Put another way, measuring the homeless population is easier than measuring the population without internet at home.

So, yeah, Trump’s throwaway idea of a digital census is absolutely stupid, for the reasons I’ve cited and probably a few dozen others we haven’t even considered.

But let’s not pretend it’s because he hasn’t thought this through. He’s a deep thinker, very brilliant, etc.

Jim Swift

Jim Swift is a senior editor at The Bulwark.