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Why an Accurate Census Is So Important

  • August 07, 2020

“Everybody is not counted, no matter what,” said Peter Miller, a retired public opinion expert at Northwestern University who spent seven years as the senior researcher for survey measurement at the Census Bureau. “You miss some people. Well, you’re going to miss many more now.”

If households can’t be reached, even by enumerators, then census takers rely on a process known as imputation — that is, they use data from demographically similar respondents to take a best guess at what the missing data ought to say.

“This year I can imagine imputation being much higher, and that will itself be a source of controversy — because imputation involves assumptions,” Dr. Miller said. “No matter what you do at that point, you’re going to have a bunch of places around the country that are unhappy with the numbers, and are going to sue. So there’s going to be a lot of controversy around this.”

Where more imputation is needed, Dr. Miller said, the door opens a bit wider for statistical wrangling — and, potentially, more political influence.

In June, in an unprecedented move, the president created two high-level positions at the Census Bureau and filled them with political appointees.

The census is used to redraw congressional and local voting districts, and to determine how about $1.5 trillion of federal funds should be allocated. And it’s just as crucial to the work done by public and private pollsters, as well as academic statisticians.

“All public opinion polls are somewhat flawed in their raw form, without any statistical adjustment,” Courtney Kennedy, the director of survey research at the Pew Research Center, said in an interview. “We calibrate all of our surveys to that statistical portrait that we get from the Census Bureau.”

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