Controversial counting

1790 census form

Form used for the first US census, 1790

For a while now I’ve been planning to write about whether or not the 2020 US census would include a controversial question asking respondents to indicate whether they are US citizens, but I figured I’d wait until the issue was sorted out.

I thought that the matter would be settled when the Supreme Court ruled on June 27 to block the inclusion of the citizenship question, saying that the rationale for including it was “contrived.” Not really a “No way, no how” kind of answer, but at least it was a No.

Subsequently, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said that the Census Bureau had put in motion the process of preparing to print census forms without the question. Printing enough surveys to count every single person in the country (the UN puts that number at 329,103,944, as of July 4, 2019) is a major undertaking, requiring a lot of lead time. It’s not a job you can just send out to the local copy center.

US Supreme court


On July 3rd, President Trump announced a reversal of his administration’s apparent acquiescence, indicating that he planned to fight on. I’ve read that Trump might try an executive order, and I’ve read that it’s unlikely to work. Whatever happens, a slog through the federal court system is likely, and that’s a time-consuming procedure. The tentative deadline for finalizing the language of the census forms was the end of June, now behind us.

There may be more tweet-instigated confusion and uncertainty to come on the subject. But I guess we can take some consolation in the fact that we’re not alone in finding this a fraught issue. Because the count will influence things like funding, political representation and political power, it gets people worked up. It’s such a controversial issue that in some places that they don’t even attempt it.

When Lebanon gained independence from France in 1943, its new government was based on census data from 1932, at a time when Maronite Christians were a majority of the population. The presidency was reserved for a Maronite, while the prime minister’s post was to be filled by a Sunni Muslim, and Speaker of Parliament by a Shiite.

In order to avoid upsetting this power arrangement, Lebanon has never conducted another census, though it is widely understood that Maronite Christians are no longer in the majority.* The arrangement makes our current kerfuffle look simple by comparison.


Maronite Christian church, Lebanon


*Details about the last Lebanese census from a New York Times newsletter, June 17, 2019

[Images: National Archive, via pinterest]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s