The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

No, the census has never been delayed. Even when it was really hard to conduct.

A census worker collects information in Fairbanks, Alaska, in 1940. (Dwight Hammack/U.S. Census Bureau/FDR Presidential Library)

President Trump tweeted Thursday that he had asked “the lawyers” if the 2020 Census could be delayed, “no matter how long,” following the Supreme Court’s decision to put on hold the inclusion of a citizenship question.

So, in 220-plus years, has there ever been a delay to the census?

“No,” historian Margo J. Anderson, author of “The American Census: A Social History,” said in a phone interview with The Washington Post. “And the date is set in statute.”

The exact date of the census is determined by Congress. Census Day has varied over time, but since the 1930 count, the official date has been April 1. And while the process has at times been complicated by a tug-of-war between the executive and legislative branches, the count has never been delayed. Not in the lead-up to the Civil War, not during the Great Depression, not for any reason at all.

Supreme Court puts census citizenship question on hold

The census is first described in the Article 1 of the U.S. Constitution as a once-a-decade tally of everyone for the purpose of allotting seats in Congress and apportioning taxes. (And yes, this is the same section of the Constitution that describes enslaved people as “three-fifths” of a person.)

The first census, in 1790, was little more than a head count, but it was anything but simple.

“It started with the U.S. Marshals, who would appoint assistants, who were just given a geographic area and were told to canvass it,” Anderson said.

Marshals had to provide their own paper for the tallies, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, so all kinds of books and sheets were turned in. It was 18 months until the completed census could be delivered to President George Washington.

In more remote areas, marshals sometimes traveled with military escorts.

Then there was the 1850 Census. Thanks to the 1849 gold rush, there were suddenly a lot of people to count in California. But this was more than a decade before the Transcontinental Railroad, and there was no way for census-takers to return their files over land.

“So they had to take the census answers [by ship] around the bottom of South America and back up,” Anderson said. “And they got lost at sea.”

Census officials made estimates in the short term. Then the entire California census was done again in 1852.

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By the 1880s, marshals had been replaced by enumerators for the temporary census bureau under the Interior Department. The bureau was made permanent in 1902 as part of the Commerce Department. By this time, much more information was gathered ⁠ — age, race, gender and, for some, citizenship.

Anderson was among a group of academics who filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court taking issue with Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’s characterization that he sought to “reinstate” a citizenship question “whose pedigree dates back nearly 200 years.”

The government has never asked a citizenship question of everyone in the country, the academics said. Though past censuses did ask for citizenship questions of some respondents until 1950, developments in statistical methodologies revealed the extent to which such questions led to undercounting.

“The Census Bureau has worked very hard over 200 years to learn how to do accurate, scientific survey research,” Anderson said. “The addition of this question didn’t draw upon that expertise.”

Justice Stephen G. Breyer cited Anderson’s book in his opinion.

For now, the 24th census is scheduled to begin on April 1, 2020.

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