Senators Press Federal Officials on Final Census Preparations

WASHINGTON (CN) – As the Trump administration’s plans to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census officially come to an end, the head of the Census Bureau expressed confidence Tuesday that his agency is prepared for the critical once-a-decade count.

(AP Photo/Michelle R. Smith)

“The census clock is ticking and we are more ready than ever to conduct a complete and accurate count,” Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham told senators.

Dillingham spent nearly two hours Tuesday before the Senate Homeland Security Committee as senators peppered him and two officials from the Government Accountability Office with questions about the administration’s final preparations for the census.

As the hearing was going on, a federal judge in New York officially signed an order permanently blocking the Trump administration from adding a citizenship question to the census, bringing to a close the 2020 census’ biggest controversy. The Trump administration had agreed to the order earlier in the day.

With the question officially off the table, the hearing primarily focused on the Census Bureau’s final preparations to administer the $15 billion count of every person in the United States. Senators were particularly interested in what the Census Bureau is doing to keep the data it collects from people secure and how it plans to reach out to groups that can be difficult to count.

Dillingham said the Census Bureau anticipates most people to respond to the census electronically, though the agency also has plans to make sure people who do not have easy access to internet can answer as well.

The bureau is preparing advertisements across all different forms of media, including social media platforms, to make sure people know about and trust the online method of filling out their census form. He also said the bureau is working with state and local groups to help ensure they see high response rates to the census, especially in communities that have an inherent distrust of the government.

“This is going to be the largest outreach campaign that the Census Bureau has ever conducted,” Dillingham said.

Two officials with the Government Accountability Office – Robert Goldenkoff, the director of strategic issues, and Nicholas Marinos, the director of information technology and cybersecurity – said the Census Bureau has been generally responsive to the GAO’s concerns and recommendations about the census, though both cautioned the agency still has hurdles to clear.

Marinos particularly warned that the Census Bureau is “at risk” of missing several key “milestones,” including in hiring new staff an on certain information technology systems it will rely on during the census.

In addition, Goldenkoff said while there is always a risk with censuses that people will not respond because they do not trust the government, that risk could be particularly high in 2020 due to the public fight over the citizenship question.

“Absolutely, there is definitely a public perception risk,” Goldenkoff said. “We’ve all seen the public dialogue of late.”

Dillingham said the bureau is working to bring on board leaders in communities that might be particularly wary of responding to the census in an effort to lessen this risk.

In closing out the hearing, Senator Ron Johnson, R-Wis., said the answers the heard during the afternoon gave him confidence in how the count will happen.

“I really do leave this hearing feeling a lot better about the census,” Johnson said Tuesday.

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