Census in the Time of Corona


Contributed by Elaine Clisham.

As if this year’s decennial census didn’t have enough challenges — the first census conducted largely online, delays in systems security testing, budget shortfalls, the court fight over the citizenship question — now the census has to contend with the restrictions imposed by a pandemic. Which means of course some things have changed.

First, the good news: As of May 2, 2020 when this is being written, the national online response rate to the census was 56.3%. That’s higher than census officials had predicted. Here’s how we stack up locally (and if you want to play around with the interactive map of response rates, you can find it here):

National Self-Response Rate: 56.3%

Response Rate Response Rate
New Jersey 58.1% Pennsylvania 58.5%
NJ-07 68.6% PA-01 68.0%
Hunterdon County 68.0% Bucks County 67.8%
Lambertville 66.9% New Hope 58.8%

So how do we get from here to 100%?


The people who have responded so far are the ones most likely to respond anyway, regardless of whether it’s online, by mail, or in person. Now we need to look for the hard-to-count groups. They are who you might expect:

  • Young people 18-24
  • Renters
  • People living in poverty
  • People who don’t speak English
  • Migrants and minorities

But we also need to worry about families with children age 4 and under; people who live in gated and access-controlled communities where census workers will have trouble reaching them; and people who struggle with technology. 

In light of the pandemic, the Census Bureau has reset some deadlines. Field staff training won’t begin until at least June 1, in-person visits won’t begin until at least the second week in August, and the final response deadline has been postponed four months, from June 30 to October 31. (So you still have time!)

Most importantly, the Census Bureau has asked Congress (and it takes an Act of Congress to do this) to postpone by four months, from March 31, 2021 to July 31, 2021, the deadline by which it has to deliver to states the data that will be used for Congressional and legislative redistricting. For Pennsylvania, this will have a marginal effect, since Pennsylvania won’t need to reapportion its districts until the 2022 elections.

But for New Jersey, that four-month delay is critical, since New Jersey needs to reapportion its legislative districts in time for 2021 elections. And the potential new data deadline of July 31, 2021 is later than our usual primary date! 

So what’s going to happen? We don’t know. Gov. Murphy was asked about this at a recent press conference, and acknowledged he “hadn’t given it one second’s thought.” Right now, here are New Jersey’s deadlines:

  • Redistricting Commission must be appointed by November 15, 2020 (you can learn more about how the governor appoints the commission here).
  • Legislative districts must be redrawn 30 days after receiving data (in 2011, data was received Feb. 3; in 2021, if the Census Bureau gets its extension, data might not be available until July).
  • Legislative candidate filing deadline: April 15, 2021
  • Primary: June 8, 2021 (we think)

Secretary of State Tahesha Way leads New Jersey’s Complete Count Commission, so it will probably fall to her to make a recommendation.



And it turns out, if you filled it out incompletely or incorrectly, you can go back and resubmit your answers! So, if another human joined your family between when you completed the census and April 1, 2020, which is the country’s official Census Day, you can add them. 

And if you added your college-student child because they were home on April 1 even though they are usually away at school, you can remove them. For students who go to college away from home, the college works with the Census Bureau to count students in residence. So, pretend they’re still at college when you fill out your form.

And finally, if you know someone in a hard-to-count group, do what you can to help them get counted. Because when it comes to the census, there’s strength in numbers.

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