The U.S. Census is a constitutionally-mandated counting of the entire U.S. population. The first one was conducted in 1790 by the Secretary of Commerce, and all 23 censuses conducted since have been administered by the Department of Commerce.

“Almost uniquely, the Census in the U.S. is part of the Constitution,” said Colm O'Muircheartaigh, professor at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy, who served as dean from 2009 to 2014.

But the Constitution does not ask how many citizens are in the county – it asks how many people in total. “Not only does the Constitution mandate the Census, but it mandates a count of everybody who's in the country — everybody who's in the U.S. at the time," O'Muircheartaigh said. "The Constitution is quite clear that the Census counts everybody regardless of citizenship.”

Every Census but one from 1820 to 1950 included a question about citizenship or place of birth for each enumerated person. From the 1960 Census through 2000, the question was included only in the “long form” of the Census, a detailed questionnaire covering a wide variety of topics that was sent, instead of the standard (short) form, to a random sample of about 1 in 6 households. In 2010 the question migrated to the American Community Survey, a continuous sample survey that approaches about 3 million households a year, as opposed to the Census short form, which was sent to all households in 2010 and did not include the citizenship question.

The US Secretary of Commerce administers the Census. The current officeholder is Wilbur Ross, since 2017.

Then, in March 2018, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross announced in a memo that he had decided to reinstate a citizenship question on the 2020 census questionnaire, launching a legal battle between the Department of Commerce and various states and local government entities, as well as non-governmental groups alleging violations of equal protection.

“At the time when the citizenship question was originally included, this was not a sensitive political issue; indeed many countries include a citizenship question in their Census,” O’Muircheartaigh said. “Once the long form of the Census was developed, however, it was seen as appropriate to relegate it to that form and not to collect the information for everyone.”

Despite the precedent for including a question about citizenship on the Census in years past, Secretary Ross’s attempts to reinstate the question on the 2020 Census — and President Donald Trump’s vehement support for the same, in the midst of a political climate imbued with increasing xenophobia — was seen by many as a way to undercount the country’s immigrant and LatinX population and subsequently skew the apportionment of states’ congressional seats and the redistricting of legislative districts.

O'Muircheartaigh, whose research encompasses survey sample design and measurement errors in surveys, was called upon for expert testimony in the State of California’s suit against Ross and the Department of Commerce in the Federal District Court of Northern California in January 2019. O'Muircheartaigh argued that the inclusion of the citizenship question would exacerbate an already existing differential undercount in all recent censuses of hard-to-count subpopulations—in particular, the Hispanic population, the immigrant population, and non-citizens in general.

O’Muircheartaigh’s testimony was important because it spoke to the question of “standing,” a legal concept which helps courts decide which cases to take, and which not to take. According to the Constitution, the courts can only adjudicate on matters where there is an actual controversy, and actual harm done. O’Muircheartaigh’s testimony, based on the Census Bureau’s own research and research findings in survey methodology, demonstrated that in the current environment, inclusion of the citizenship question would cause actual harm and damage the quality of the Census count differentially for different states.

A photo of Colm O'Muircheartaigh.
Professor O'Muircheartaigh testified about the effects of a citizenship question on the 2020 Census.

The State of California, which was an opponent of the citizenship question, won that case, which was appealed by the US Department of Justice to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court definitively blocked the question from being included on the 2020 census form in June 2019 by a vote of 5 to 4. The decision was based on the narrower grounds than the lower court case, finding that Secretary Ross had falsely stated the reasons for including the question. The Court did not adjudicate the issue of harm.

The decision has ramifications for seats in Congress, and the relative power of the two major political parties. “Non-citizens and immigrants in general are not equally distributed across the country,” O’Muircheartaigh said. “In particular, in the parts of the country where you tend to have more immigrants and non-citizens, you tend to have more Democratic voters. A primary function of the Census, mandated by the Constitution, is apportioning seats in Congress to the states proportionally to the Census counts. This means that non-citizens, regardless of immigration status, count towards the congressional representation of each state.”

“There has been a long-running argument about the appropriateness of including all persons in the calculation of Congressional apportionment. Though the Constitution is quite clear on the issue, there is a history of political interventions intended to dilute the coverage of non-citizens and others in the Census counts,” he explained. “The conceptual argument is contaminated by the fact that most of the people who are hard to count – the poor, the disadvantaged, the immigrants – tend to be concentrated in urban areas and other areas that vote Democratic. Consequently the moves to suppress the counts have tended to originate on the right in the Republican party.”

Prior to Secretary Ross proposing the citizenship question, community organizers were already working on spreading the word about the importance of participating in the forthcoming Census.

There are more tools in the Census Bureau's toolkit now than there was in 1860 (pictured), which was taken entirely by hand.

Just 72 percent of Illinois residents self-responded to the U.S. Census in 2010. In the decade since the 2010 Census, Illinois has suffered a loss of 168,700 people, the largest raw decline of any state, according to Census data analysis by the Chicago Sun Times. The past decade of steep emigration from the state, combined with Illinois’ already lackluster participation in 2010, makes Census 2020 all the more imperative for the future social and economic health of the state.

As far back as 2017, Forefront, a statewide association in Illinois that represents both grantmakers and nonprofits, began to delve into all things census and civic engagement through their Democracy Initiative, enlisting, educating, and training hundreds of nonprofit leaders and legislators across the state to encourage their constituents to participate in the 2020 Census, as well as register and turn out to vote.

“Knowing that Illinois was middle of the pack in self-response rate in the Census in 2010, there was a need for coordination from government, philanthropy, and nonprofit, and Forefront, being that convener in that space, was the organization that hit the ground running and pulled together the Illinois Count Me In 2020 program, at the start of 2018,” said Anita Banerji, the director of Forefront’s Democracy Initiative.

“Illinois is one of three states with the most to lose with an inaccurate census count, the reason being is that we've had considerable outward migration from this state in the last five years alone,” Banerji explained.

Since Illinois’ congressional representative count reached its peak with 27 seats in 1963, the state has lost one to two seats each decade since. In keeping with that trend, Illinois will lose at least one more seat in 2020, if not two.

At a time when Illinois’s state budget is very much in flux, the injection of federal dollars into the state’s infrastructure — determined by the Census count— are all the more vital.

Under Gov. J.B. Pritzker (seen here at Harris Public Policy), Illinois directed additional state funding to organizations helping individuals with the Census.

In 2017, Forefront had already coalesced various Illinois philanthropies to raise $1.75 million for Census outreach work by the time then-Governor Bruce Rauner and the Illinois General Assembly provided an additional $1.5 million from the state in 2018, followed by an additional $29 million — one of the largest per capita investments in the country, according to Banerji — from Governor J.B. Priztker’s administration in the spring of 2019. This resulted in the creation of the Illinois Census Office, housed at the Department of Human Services, which was further bolstered by an additional $4 million from Cook County and $2.7 million from the City of Chicago alone. 

So when Secretary Ross announced in March 2018 that he planned to reinstate a citizenship question on the 2020 Census, “you can imagine that the immigrant communities and advocates went wild,” Banerji said.

“A fundamental issue with the proposal to introduce a citizenship question in 2020, was that for a lot of people — not only immigrants, but also people who are either second generation or connected to immigrants — felt that being identified as such at their addresses would make them or their friends and relatives vulnerable to various forms of oppression, including deportation,” O’Muircheartaigh said. “There is not complete confidence that the census data—despite what the law says—would be completely protected from immigration enforcement.”

As various community groups began to organize their Census 2020 outreach efforts, “it put them in a very difficult position, because they could no longer go to their constituents and say, ‘We want you to be counted,’ if they thought being counted could also mean that they could be attacked or deported.

“It undermined the whole process of outreach that was fundamental to the census,” he continued. “The people whom you need to do this outreach are local. They're local community groups.”

The Forefront coalition, already in full swing by the time the citizenship question was proposed, was able to collect 5,000 public comments across the state that they then filed nationally.

“It put us on the map nationally,” Banerji said. “And it led the way for that $29 million state appropriation.”

“Even though the question was finally put to rest in the summer of 2019, it was almost a year and a half of intense advocacy, and our advocates in the census space were starting to burn out, almost a year before the actual self-response period opened up,” Banerji said. “And so it's been a long, hard fight here in Illinois, as it has been across the country, and there are folks, and communities, and families that still think the question is going to be on the form.

“Now that we are in that self-response period, I would encourage everybody to go and look at the survey. You will see for yourself when you go online, or you look at the paper format, that the question is not on the form.”

Census forms were mailed out in early March, and on April 1, Census Day is observed nationwide. Following that, Census takers would normally begin visiting college students who live on campus, as well as people living in senior centers, and others who live among large groups of people.

However, with the spread of COVID-19 resulting in severely limited social interaction and the cancellation of events planned to promote increased self-reporting before April 1, all of this in flux.

Census forms were mailed out in March 2020.

Historically undercounted populations in Chicago are disproportionately concentrated in the city’s south, west, and northwest neighborhoods. Chicago Cares, a local volunteer organization whose efforts are concentrated in these same areas, was planning a week-longeffort to spread the word about the Census’s importance before COVID-19 concerns ultimately led to the cancellation of these plans, leaving it and other community groups, such as Forefront, to adapt to this ever-evolving, new reality.

“The Census informs the dollars and resources that support communities, not only by political representation, but...via those dollars and resources that go to a community,” said Chicago Cares CEO Jenne Myers. “If a question [about citizenship] was on there [and] some redistricting happened, you'd have more food deserts, you would have not enough low income housing. The amount of societal issues that we are seeing so starkly right now in a situation like [with the spread of coronavirus], where those safety nets, would be needed even more...we wouldn't have the appropriate resources for it because we wouldn’t know how many people we're supporting.”

Organizations are now tasked with asking their stakeholders, advocates and grantees to conduct virtual town halls and gatherings during which they can promote the online and by-phone Census participation options.

“This is overwhelming, and this could very much depress our census count,” Banerji said. “So this is a time when we have to double down and focus even more to find the strength within us, as trusted community leaders, to pivot and to quickly pivot, so that we can ensure a fair and accurate count.”

The 2020 Census is happening now. You can respond online, by phone, or by mail. For more information, go to