President Trump announced that he won't push for a citizenship question on the 2020 Census after all. (Carolyn Kaster)

The nation’s 24th census kicks off in less than six months, with most American households due to receive their census materials in mid-March, asking them to respond via Internet, phone or paper form by “Census Day,” April 1.

The Constitution requires a population count every 10 years, to reapportion seats in the House of Representatives and electoral college votes. The census form now includes a handful of additional questions that produce the fine-grained data needed to administer federal laws or programs. A longer questionnaire, called the American Community Survey, which collects a broader set of demographic and economic data, is sent to a much smaller sample every month, producing new information each year.

It takes a full decade to plan and conduct a census. A dress rehearsal traditionally occurs in years ending in “8,” leaving a year to refine operations, open local offices and begin hiring and early promotion. By the last year in a decade, the countdown clock should be on autopilot, as the Census Bureau prepares to launch counting operations in late January. Significant changes — to the census design, content and schedule — should not be on the table.

This year, they nearly were. And the nation’s ability to conduct an accurate enumeration — on time, as the Constitution and federal law require, and within budget — was put in jeopardy.

The Trump administration’s now-abandoned effort to add a citizenship question to the census form kicked off a complex and confusing battle in the courts and Congress, right up until Trump walked away from it Thursday evening. The directive first came in late March 2018, after all planned testing for the 2020 Census was already underway or finished. The Census Bureau’s own experts and six former directors advised against adding the question, saying it would depress response rates. (The census form every household fills out has never included a question asking about every person’s citizenship status. And the government has never published citizenship data for every census block in the country.) But the Trump administration wanted the question on the 2020 Census; kept its plan secret for a year while it tried to cook up a rationale (required by federal administrative law) that even conservative Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. called “contrived”; and then, after three federal judges and the high court sided with plaintiffs seeking to block the question, Trump decided he’d still find a way.

While almost every census has its controversies — which have often, like this one, involved claims that one party or the other is “politicizing” the count — they never threatened to interfere with the actual enumeration. No previous administration (or Congress) has insisted on untested changes to already designed forms, which officials knew would vitiate the accuracy of the enumeration, let alone tried to sidestep court rulings about the count.

Whether you believe the census should ask about citizenship or not, the fight Trump very nearly wouldn’t let go of alarmed anyone who understands how central accurate census information is to the very functioning of our democracy, our government and our economy.

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Because the census is required by the Constitution, it has always generated a lot of official paperwork. The public record of census controversy and planning is found in the voluminous compilations of congressional documents and provides vivid evidence of the issues over the years. Some disputes relate to the information to be gathered, others to methodology, still others to the results. Should the census ask a question on income? See debates over the 1940 Census, when that question first appeared. Should the census ask the same questions of everyone, or could sample surveys provide equally valid information, thereby reducing costs and the response burden on each household? See congressional oversight of the 1960 Census. Should people be able to select more than one racial and ethnic answer on the census? See significant oversight of 2000 Census planning. What’s the formula for translating the counts for states into the allocation of seats in the House? See the 1840, 1850, 1880, 1910, 1920 and 1940 censuses!

But while Congress, the American public and the Census Bureau’s professional staff might have furious debates about important content, methodology and political questions, up to now, everyone involved knew they had to reach consensus and resolution in time for the operational work to proceed. And they did. A year or more before the “actual enumeration,” these matters have always been settled, and the government counted the population successfully.

The current controversy was different from a legal standpoint as well as a timing one. The Trump administration asserted that the operational design of the census is an executive branch function, even though the Constitution gives Congress responsibility for taking a census, “in such Manner as they shall by Law direct.” Some pundits suggested that no other branch need weigh in, because Congress ceded its constitutional authority to the secretary of commerce through the Reapportionment Act of 1929. That claim is unprecedented — and historically inaccurate, just as Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’s claim that the administration is simply “reinstating” a citizenship question. Trump’s unwillingness this month to back down (with apparent support from Attorney General William P. Barr) after the Supreme Court ruled and the forms were sent to the printer, raised even more fraught questions about the authority of the three branches of government, as lawyers on all sides despaired of clarifying those separation of powers arguments before the counting is slated to start in late January. The ambiguity put the actual enumeration at risk.

Since the Supreme Court ruled late last month that Ross could not add a citizenship question without a better legal rationale, Trump tried to find a way around court rulings on the question, all of which he’s lost. He suggested several steps he might have taken, including adding an “addendum” to the forms or delaying the census altogether. On Thursday, he finally changed course again and announced that he would no longer press to have a citizenship question on the 2020 Census form. Instead, he ordered federal agencies to provide their records to the Census Bureau so that the bureau can compile statistics on citizenship.

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But now that adding the citizenship question to the 2020 form is off the table, it’s useful to remember just how complex the decennial head count is.

The census requires an extraordinarily precise, complex and interrelated set of operations and activities. The schedule revolves around Census Day, which is set by law, as is the Dec. 31 deadline for reporting state population totals and the resulting apportionment to the president. Hopefully the Census Bureau and the public can now focus on averting any other operational bumps in the road that have affected the census in the past, including natural disasters, funding delays, lagging recruitment, or the threat of cyberattacks, phishing scams and disinformation campaigns.

It’s time to get back to making sure that the data processing systems are working properly, that the public promotional campaigns are on track, that the Complete Count liaison committee in states and local governments are ready to roll to support quick public census response.

With Thursday’s announcement decision, the looming constitutional conflict over the census should abate. But challenges remain, including the aftereffects of several years of ugly debate about who the “real” people are. Immigrant communities are still likely to be wary of responding to a survey that seemed to threaten their presence in the country. The president/administration has left in his/its wake a climate of fear and cloud of confusion. The Census Bureau has an uphill climb to address those factors effectively. Without clear or full-throated presidential support for a fair and accurate census, many people will still question the administration’s commitment to an inclusive count. Stakeholder collaboration with the bureau will be essential here.

So hopefully now, the systems for the 2020 Census are a go. Those of us who watch these activities know that everything surrounding Census Day is carefully calibrated, based on years of testing, to ensure appropriate ebbs and flows of response, workloads, data processing and tabulation so that by December 2020, the nation will have counted its population successfully for the 24th time.

The census is an essential constitutional mechanism for maintaining a representative system of governance, responsive to the needs of “We the people,” as illuminated by the decennial count. The framers produced a document to “establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” Every decade the nation faces the question as to whether the census will successfully support achievement of those ideals. Hopefully now it will, and the agency professionals will, as they have in the past, carry out the census as planned, for the good of our democracy.

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