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2020 Census: Ensuring a Complete Count

Once every 10 years, the US Constitution requires a full count of the population in order to reapportion seats in the US House of Representatives. That exercise—the 2020 Census—begins in mid-March 2020, and state government is hard at work to ensure a complete and accurate count. The effort is important because the Census is not just about political power, but it also represents billions of dollars every year in federal support to education, health, and infrastructure and serves as a basis for decision-making across all sectors.

For the first time, the primary method of self-response will be via the internet, but the Census Bureau (Bureau) also plans to take responses over the phone or using a print questionnaire. The Bureau is also using modern technologies to develop its Master Address File and automate large parts of its administrative and enumeration processes. The goal is to increase productivity while reducing costs.

Still, concerns about underfunding and recruiting difficulties have served to undermine some of the excitement over the high-tech nature of the census. A reduced budget and low unemployment may prevent the full recruitment and deployment of a robust effort to advertise the benefits of responding to the census and to provide assistance in the completion of census forms.

Moreover, parts of the population are more reluctant than ever to participate in a census due to the late introduction of a citizenship question. Given anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies, those born outside the United States (whether residing legally in the US or not) feel targeted by this question and fear that their responses will be used against them. Although it is a legal obligation to respond to the census, many have already expressed reluctance to respond, potentially rendering themselves and their families invisible as political and economic entities for the next 10 years!

An accurate census can deliver important economic and political benefits to communities in Washington. Local governments across the state can help to spread the word that the process is quick, easy, and safe. Furthermore, local governments can help residents overcome any internet access or digital literacy issues they may confront in completing the Census form.

Why Is the Census Important?

The Census drives decisions that will affect economic investments in our state and the weight of our political influence until 2031.

The count will decide the number of representatives the State of Washington sends to the House of Representatives, as well as draw political boundaries within the state. In the last census, Washington gained a seat and now has 10 representatives defending our interests in the nation’s capital!

The Federal Government also uses Census data to distribute more than $800 billion in health, education, and infrastructure funds to states, counties, and cities. Locally, private and public agencies, organizations, and businesses use Census date to determine where to build schools, roads, healthcare facilities, child care and senior centers, grocery stores, and new factories.

In 2016, Washington received $16.7 billion of federal funding, or $2,319 per person, including:

  • Nearly $700 million in bridge and highway maintenance and construction,
  • $8.5 billion for health programs,
  • $2.4 billion for education,
  • $1.2 billion for housing, and
  • $550 million for rural assistance programs.

An accurate and complete count of people living in Washington State will ensure that every community gets its fair share of state and federal resources and that their voice matters.

How Does It Work? 10 Questions in 10 Minutes

Beginning in mid-March 2020, the Census Bureau will send each household an invitation to go online (or call) and provide information about the number of people residing at that address. The questionnaire will also ask the name, gender, age (including date of birth), and race/ethnicity of each person living at that residence. Finally, the form will ask if residents own or rent and will request a phone number in case there is a need to follow up on a resident's responses for any reason.

What Is the Timeline?

The process begins in mid-March 2020 and lasts until the end of July.

The first mailing from the Census Bureau will arrive at residences between March 12-20. If a resident doesn’t respond to the first mailing, four more follow-up reminders will be mailed. The fourth mailing will include a printed copy of the questionnaire. If a resident still hasn’t responded by the beginning of May, a Census Bureau employee will visit the house to collect the information needed. The visit will be repeated if the employee is not successful on the first occasion.

Is It Safe?

The Census Bureau takes every effort to protect the confidentiality of responses!

The Bureau recognizes how important accurate information is to community decision-making and planning so it doesn’t want to do anything to discourage responses. It uses the highest levels of data security to safeguard the privacy of the information it receives, plus, laws make it illegal for any Census Bureau employee to use responses provided against an individual or to share an individual’s personal information with other agencies.
Census forms can only be used to produce statistical datasets, with severe penalties for any violations. For more information, refer to the Factsheet on Census and Confidentiality.

What Can You Do to Help?

There are many ways a local government staffmember or elected official can help with this effort. This includes:

  • Inform yourself at
  • Encourage qualified individuals to apply for good paying, flexible, part-time Census jobs.
  • Do a scan of your community and note:
    • Who might have difficulty or be afraid to respond to the census?
    • What solutions can be devised to overcome these difficulties?
    • What answers can be provided to allay concerns?
  • Make a list of community leaders who enjoy the public’s trust and educate them about the census.
  • Develop a contact list of people who are willing to “Commit to the Census”—when the time comes, contact them with reminders.
  • Create an inventory of all mailing lists, newsletters, and recurrent communications (bills, invoices, etc.) that could be used to promote the Census.
  • Identify places with internet access and computers/tablets to host Census Assistance Centers for those who need help completing the form online.

For more information on WA 2020, contact Lisa McLean, Complete Count Committee Coordinator at

Question? Comments

If you have questions about this topic or other local government issues, please use our Ask MRSC form or call us at (206) 625-1300 or (800) 933-6772. If you have questions or comments about this blog post, please email the MRSC Insight Editors.

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

Photo of Lisa McLean

About Lisa McLean

Lisa McLean serves as the coordinator of the Washington Complete Count Committee. Working with nonprofit, private and public leaders across the state, she spearheads the state’s efforts to educate and build awareness about the 2020 Census—and ultimately encourage confidence, trust, and participation in the process.

Lisa brings 25 years of experience managing nonpartisan grassroots political organizing projects in the Americas, Africa, Middle East, and Europe to her current work. She holds a BA in Economics from Boston College and an MA in International Affairs from Johns Hopkins University.

The views expressed in guest columns represent the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of MRSC.