We’ve only just passed the halfway mark in 2019. Just a bit under six months left in the year, about six months before 2020 arrives.

It seems, to the layperson, like a lot of time in which to accomplish something as seemingly trivial as printing out the forms needed for the next census, which will be completed next year. Most of us have printed things out before; it rarely takes six months for any of us to do so.

So when the Trump administration claimed last week that it had to abandon its fight over adding a question about citizenship to next year’s census questionnaire due to the urgency of getting the documents printed, it could seem a bit overwrought. Is it going to take more than six months to print the questionnaires?

Well, maybe not exactly six months, but it’s not going to be quick. The reason is simple: scale.

With a renewed legal battle over that citizenship question looming, NPR’s Hansi Lo Wang pointed to the Government Printing Office’s request-for-proposal document to explain the urgency of the deadline. The RFP is used to solicit bids for the print job itself and includes the actual numbers of documents that will need to be prepared for distribution.

They are staggering.

The government needs:

  • About 117 million English-language questionnaires, each eight pages long;
  • 21 million bilingual questionnaires, each 16 pages long;
  • 385 million single-sheet letters;
  • 273 million inserts;
  • 209 million postcards; and
  • 522 million envelopes of varying sizes.

In total, it’s 1.53 billion distinct pieces of material. And that’s the finished product. Including the various pages of the questionnaires that need to be produced, we’re talking about more than 2 billion sheets of paper that need to be printed between now and the start of the census.

When I started writing this article, there were about 15.5 million seconds left until the new year. That means one printer would need to print more than 130 items every second to finish the job before the ball drops in Times Square.

That gives a sense of the scale we’re talking about here, but it’s not actually the deadline. Wang notes that the first documents actually need to be mailed on March 12, 2020. That makes the printing pace much easier: Just 117 items per second. While it’s possible that the questionnaires could be printed later in the process than intended, that would likely disrupt the printer’s schedule and potentially increase costs for the government.

Think about it another way: The final, produced documents that will need to be printed will use just under 300 billion square inches of paper. (Taking into consideration the fact that envelopes use more than twice as much paper as the finished size.) How big is that? It’s about 74.6 square miles — or more than enough to cover every square inch of Washington with about 6 square miles left over to paper over the Potomac.

Using a generous estimate of how much paper can be produced by a single tree, the paper requirements for the census could require between 160,000 and 320,000 trees. (There is no mention in the RFP of using recycled material, probably because this would cost more.) This excludes the fact that different documents require different types of paper; postcards are printed on stiffer stock than letters, for example.

It’s a massive undertaking, one that’s been in the works for years. (The deadline for responding to the RFP was September 2018, for example.) President Trump’s desire for a question related to citizenship was an addition that came up only relatively late in the process; his sudden reversal of the Commerce Department’s decision to move forward with printing the questionnaires without that question apparently came after printing had already begun.

On Friday, Trump speculated that perhaps the citizenship question could be part of a supplement included with the 2020 Census questionnaire. Look for an RFP asking for estimates on the cost of printing another 130-million-odd forms.

Oh, and asking for an expedited timeline on same.