What’s more, even if the database and its underlying information prove secure, foreign actors could try to “undermine Americans’ trust in democratic institutions” by using Facebook campaigns and social engineering to convince people to refrain from taking the census or to mistrust its findings. It’s possible they could do that by merely exacerbating real controversies swirling around the census and the citizenship question, Geltzer and Olsen write.
All of these potential pitfalls with the 2020 census can be broken down into three main dangers: poor quality in the underlying data, data tampering, and the use of data—good or bad—for antidemocratic aims. These deficiencies could each be used for political purposes by domestic groups or foreign actors with interests in American elections. They could also be used purely to destabilize the country.
How the census missed 400,000 Latino kids
As the ongoing furor over the citizenship question shows, these three dangers can play off one another. For example, the main objection from immigration activists on the citizenship question—that noncitizens would refuse to take the census with the question included for fear of reprisal—is in part a data-quality concern: An undercount of noncitizens will bias the census data and make it unreliable. But it’s also a concern based on the history of racist leaders wielding administrative data against immigrants, and on the potential for the GOP to use the census to punish “sanctuary cities” or deport people. Additionally, data that undercount the total number of noncitizens—whether through nonresponse bias or tampering—also hamper districts with large numbers of them through the improper allocation of congressional representation and funds.
So far, the most prominent census-related debate has been the growing conversation about gerrymandering. The enumerated purpose of the census in the Constitution is to use the data gleaned to redraw congressional districts and reallocate representation to fit the population. Over the past few decades, as politics and demographics have become increasingly intertwined, the institutional incentives to game that system have mounted. Especially as Republicans have embraced their status as a party for white men, they’ve become more and more adept at using the census, especially the redistricting process, in order to maintain partisan advantage. But that advantage has been built mostly with the census data already in hand—influencing the data itself, perhaps by biasing it against noncitizens, would add another potent weapon to an arsenal that’s already proven its dominance over American electoral politics. And that is to say nothing of the possibility that between foreign and domestic interventions in data quality, the census could be rendered unusable or unreliable for those political processes altogether.