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Census 2020 social distancing: Why you should spend 5 minutes now to avoid a knock on your door later

(Image: CHS)

It might seem like a well-thought-out contingency plan on the part of the federal government, if it weren’t for a mountain of evidence showing that there is no such thing.

This year, for the first time in history, the U.S. census has moved online, hopefully minimizing personal contact at a time when a once per decade government tally runs up against a once per century (let’s hope) viral pandemic.

For anyone who doesn’t remember from government classes, 2020 is a census year. The due date for this assignment? April 1st.

The U.S. constitution mandates that every 10 years, the government take a count of everyone who lives here. While there had been a bit of a dust up over a Trump administration plan to add in a question about respondent’s citizenship status, that question is not included.

If you haven’t yet, you’ll soon receive a mailer from the government with a 12-digit alphanumeric code on it. Go to, click start and type in the code. You will then be asked a series of questions, and can choose one of 13 languages. Questions include how many people live in your household, their name, age, gender (only male or female options) and race (a lot of options, including the option for multi-racial people to check more than one box). There’s also a question about if you own your home (with or without a mortgage) or rent. The questions are based on your living arrangements as of April 1, so take that into account.

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The whole process of filling out the questions takes about five minutes — but, hey, stretch it out if you are really bored at home.

If you lost your form (or threw it in the recycling unopened) you can still go to the website and start the questionnaire, there will just be an extra hoop or two to jump through.

The Census Bureau, based on historical data, expects between 14% and 29% of Capitol Hill, First Hill, and Central District area residents not to respond to the online questions and require an in-person count. If you choose not to respond, then some time in the next few months, someone will come to your door to get the information from you in person. Please, consider the number of people’s doors this person will need to knock on and the potential for viral exposure. For yourself and your community, do your civic duty and answer the thing online.

The headline reason for the census is congressional reapportionment. Civics lesson on that to follow; skip ahead if you don’t need it. The U.S. congress has 435 seats. These are divided up between the states based on their relative population. No state can have less than one seat, but otherwise the size of districts end up being fairly similar from one state to the next. After the 2010 census, the average congressional district held about 710,000 people. That number will likely go up this time around, since there are more Americans than there were 10 years ago. Districts shift around if one state has added population at a faster clip than the country as a whole. But since the total number of seats in congress stays the same, then for one state to gain a seat, another has to lose one. In 2010, Washington did add a seat, bringing our total to 10 members of congress. We are not expected to change this year, but many other states will. Current general projections expect states in the northeast and midwest to lose seats while the south and southwest gain, reflecting a general trend of people moving south and west. Even though Washington is not projected to lose or gain a seat, it’s important to be counted to ensure that the overall numbers are an accurate representation of the country.

In addition to reapportionment, there is redistricting, which is also driven by census numbers. Unlike many other states, the redistricting is not done by state lawmakers. In those cases, typically the party in power draws lines to their own advantage to help maintain that power. In Washington, redistricting is done by a bipartisan committee (not quite as good as a nonpartisan committee would be, but better than nothing). The committee uses census population data to re-draw the boundaries for congress and for the state Legislature. Typically, the process results in a large number of safe seats for each party, and a couple toss-up districts.

Seattle’s wild growth over the past decade could mean we end up, more or less, shifting districts in the legislature to here from more sparsely populated parts of the state. Which could, possibly, lets us get more Seattle-friendly people in the Legislature and allow us to move forward with some ideas that might otherwise be stymied by Olympia. But this depends on Seattleites filling out their forms so we can show just how many people live here.

The less attention-grabbing, but at least as important, reason for filling out forms is federal spending. Countless federal programs including roads, education, housing, and health funding, depends on population. The more people who live in a place, the more federal dollars get sent there. A number of city programs are funded through these federal programs, including the city’s safe routes to school program, training for firefighters dealing with HAZMAT, to help with rapid rehousing, SNAP food assistance, Medicare and Medicaid, and much more.

The city has convened a task force to help people with the census. They had planned in-person help session, but those are off the table for the time being. If/when the libraries and community centers reopen, they may start the program up. Until then, check the city website for information, and for details on who to call if you need assistance.


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