The U.S. Census Bureau distributes a survey to 3.5 million households. Its mission, to count the population. As a practical political matter, the results of the count determine which states increase and decrease seats in the House of Representatives. Just as important for Presidential elections, it also controls which states add or reduce electoral votes.
Theoretically, the census ensures equal voice to people living in different areas of the country. Since the accuracy of this data is vital for the functioning of the democratic process, and since the Constitution expressly includes a provision guaranteeing a census, answering the survey is mandatory. This is not controversial.
What is controversial, is the way the census survey has come to encompass more than its Constitutional mission. In the same way that pork projects seem to waddle their way into our most indispensable legislations, questions serving political agendas have migrated into the census survey.
Invading Personal Privacy
Many of the questions asked are extremely personal in nature, leaving respondents feeling uncomfortable- if not downright violated. The survey probes what the interior of your house looks like: how many rooms you have, how many of those rooms are bedrooms, whether you have a shower, and so on and so forth.
It asks deeply sensitive questions about you and your family. For example, the government demands to know how many times you have been married, whether your kids are adopted, and to what ethnicity each family member belongs. The survey also requires you to disclose other personal information concerning things like social security, public assistance, and welfare payments.
It demands to know how much your house is worth, the taxes you pay on it, and what kind of things you own. The survey assesses how educated and financially successful each person in the household is. It inquires whether or not someone in your house has problems dressing or bathing on their own, or and whether someone has “a physical, emotional, or mental condition” that would get in the way of running errands (See entire form).
Compulsion by Force of Federal Criminal Law
Answering these questions is mandatory under penalty of law, just as answering the population questions is mandatory. If you fail to answer any question disseminated under the umbrella of the census, it is a Federal offense, making you subject to criminal charges and a hefty fine.
Potential for Abuse of Power
Once the government captures your information, the opportunities for abuse are limitless. Most dangerously, in time of perceived crisis, what stops the government from voiding the promised confidentiality? A 2007 report by William Seltzer and Margo Anderson exposed that during World War II, the Census Bureau gave the Secret Service the names and addresses of every American with Japanese ancestry living in Washington D.C. This contributed to the heinous abuses of the Japanese Internment.
Gaping loopholes remain open. Today, like during World War II, nothing prevents government from passing a law to release confidential information. With an emotionally compelling agenda, and a simple majority in congress, the Census Bureau’s promise of confidentiality is broken.
Most recently, the census bureau brought suspicion to peaceful American communities by presenting a report to the Department of Homeland Security about how many people at each zip code shared an ethnicity with terrorists on the news. And these are only the instances about which we know.
Moreover, unscrupulous government authorities, colluding with unscrupulous political candidates, conceivably could utilize the data for improper advantage in campaigns. Similarly, unauthorized disclosure to businesses could easily lead to targeted spamming and telemarketing.
In view of the vulnerabilities, the distinction between the constitutional mission of the census to count the people, and the extracurricular gathering of highly personal information disconcertingly emerges. The second cannot legitimately ride the constitutional coat-tails of the first.
Howe, B. (2007, March 20) Scholars: Census Gave Names to Security Agencies in WWII. Retrieved from here.
Seltzer, W. & Anderson, M. (2007, March 29). Census Confidentiality under the Second War Powers Act (1942-1947). Retrieved from here.
Minkel, J. (2007, March 30). Confirmed: The U.S. Census Bureau Gave Up Names of Japanese-Americans in WW II. Retrieved from here.
Williams, W. (2010, February 16). The Census and the Constitution. Retrieved from here.
Bovard, J. (2016, June 3). The Census Bureau’s Latest Peril to Freedom. Retrieved from here.
United States Census Bureau (2017, March 16). Mandatory vs. Voluntary Methods. Retrieved from here.