Why the Census Is Stuck With Snail Mail

I saw a tweet this morning from Natalie  Fonseca (@TechPolicy) of Tech Policy Central, who poses the perfectly reasonable question of why in 2010 we are still conducting the census using paper forms and snail mail. The answer is a lot more complicated than the question, but the bottom line is that we can’t do a census by mail for the same reason that we  cannot vote by mail. The state of online authentication simply doesn’t allow it.

The problem is that the census isn’t like American Idol voting. It really matters. Small differences in the population count, sometimes a matter of a few thousand people, can move a seat in the House of Representatives from one state to another. Population totals are also used in formulas that allocate federal funds to states and localities. Enough is at stake so that there is an incentive to cheat.

That makes it important that every household in the U.S. be counted once and only once. You have to think about how this might be done electronically. You can’t have people just go to a Web site and fill out a form because we have no way to verify that the people filling out the forms are who they claim to be. There is no particularly good way to stop someone from filling out multiple forms.

In one important sense, the census is easier than voting because census forms, unlike ballots don’t have to be anonymous. But in practice, this doesn’t help much. An online census would require distributing some sort of token to each household so that the token could be used to retrieve an online form. Even if email were secure enough for this purpose, and it really isn’t, the government has no way of matching email addresses to housing units, and that’s probably a good thing from a privacy perspective.The one thing the government does have a pretty good idea about is the location and street address of housing units. This isn’t perfect: Every community has off-the-books housing, and there are homeless people and people in institutions who are harder to find. But it’s a very good starting point.

There’s a halfway solution that might help. The government could include with each mailed census form a token of some sort–probably a unique ID number–that could be used to retrieve and submit an online form. People would then have a choice between online and paper forms. I wouldn’t be surprised to see this done for the 2020 census. But one way or another, paper census forms are going to be with us for a long, long time. Technology marches on, but it often does it surprisingly slowly.

One Response to “Why the Census Is Stuck With Snail Mail”

  1. Theo Francis Says:

    Good post. Put another way, the reason the Census uses snail-mail is that the Census is about counting and measuring the distribution of people across physical geography. The mail is about contacting people in a physical/geographic location. So in fact, the mail is an excellent way to conduct the census. Email and other electronic communications, by contrast, have almost no relation to geographic location, which is part of the reason they’re such useful technologies — except when it comes to counting people in place (or telling if someone’s home, where a business is located, etc. etc.)

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