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Take Note: NPR's Hansi Lo Wang On The 2020 Census

Stephen Voss, NPR

Hansi Lo Wang is a national correspondent for NPR and an award-winning journalist. He has been reporting on the 2020 census for NPR since 2017. He discussed the issues surrounding the 2020 census, and, now that counting is over, the next steps in the process.

This interview is from the Democracy Works podcast, a collaboration between WPSU and the McCourtney Institute for Democracy at Penn State. The Institute’s Jenna Spinelle interviewed Hansi Lo Wang.


Emily Reddy: Welcome to Take Note on WPSU, I'm Emily Reddy. The census decides the distribution of power and money in the United States. Hansi Lo Wang has been reporting on the 2020 census for NPR since 2017. In today's interview, he talked about how he came to cover the census, controversies surrounding the 2020 census, and next steps in the process now that counting has ended. Today's interview is from the Democracy Works podcast, a collaboration between WPSU and the McCourtney Institute for Democracy at Penn State. The Institute's Jenna Spinelle interviewed Hansi Lo Wang for a live virtual event, including questions from event attendees.

Jenna Spinelle: Can you tell us a little bit about how you became interested in the census and how you came to cover it as the primary focus of your work at NPR?

Hansi Lo Wang: Well, I first covered the census when I was a reporter on NPR's Code Switch team, which focuses on issues of race, ethnicity. And, and later, when I joined NPR's National Desk, I was assigned to cover demographics, so much of what I did at Code Swith, and so certainly how we understand what the demographics are in the United States is through the census. And I knew when I was assigned that beat that some major decisions were about to be made about the census, this is in the years leading up to 2020. And so I made sure to include that on my list of things to keep tabs on. And you know, a lot of people don't realize that, you know, by the time most of the country's thinking about the census, a lot of the decisions and the discussions of what should be included, what questions should be asked, and how the census can be conducted, that's really pretty much set and almost concrete, but a lot of people aren't paying attention. And so I started paying attention. And I like to say I went really down the rabbit hole when the Census Bureau put out a major report in 2017, announcing the question topics for the 2020 census as well as what's known as the American Community Survey, which is the largest survey that the Census Bureau conducts. It's not the census, but it asks a lot of detailed demographic questions that a lot of parts of the government and researchers rely on. And in that report, I saw a really interesting change in the appendix, where it was first published among the question topics that were listed, at first, were sexual orientation and gender identity, and then hours later, the Trump administration, the Census Bureau, put a revised copy of that same report, and sexual orientation and gender identity disappeared from the appendix. And the Census Bureau essentially called it a clerical error. I filed Freedom of Information Act requests and found out that there were multiple federal agencies under the Obama administration that requested sexual orientation and gender identity questions, not on the census, but specifically on the American Community Survey. But ultimately, I reported that the Trump administration did not push forward with that idea. And it was an interesting story to kind of-- an entry point for me of all the kind of behind-the-scenes, often overlooked decisions that are made quietly behind the scenes outside the public view that can have major implications on what information is and is not collected for the census and other major Census Bureau surveys.

Jenna Spinelle: Yeah, and that brings up an interesting point. Somebody in the chat mentioned that they consider you to be the most valuable source of information on the census--

Hansi Lo Wang: No pressure.

Jenna Spinelle: --out there right now. So, how did you come up to speed? It seems like this is an interesting mix of both data skills, but also, especially in the, you know, recent months and years, the legal skills as well being able to sift through these court documents and filings and things.

Hansi Lo Wang: I mean, I have to confess, I don't really consider myself a data reporter, which will surprise a lot of people because I'm known as the census reporter, and people just think of data immediately, I think a lot of people. Well, I really, I'm still scared of really excel spreadsheets and, and combing through data, and rely on my colleagues and NPR to really help me with that. And really, this has boiled down to a lot of legal reporting that I've had to really learn trial-by-fire, no pun intended, or maybe intended, I don't know. And it's really just been osmosis and trial and error, just learning bit by bit, and relying on a lot of former Census Bureau officials and other experts that have been following this for decades, really, much longer than I have, and I've learned from them and made mistakes along the way and have been called out and, and try to figure out how all this works and it is a vast body of knowledge. And there is just such a long and complicated history of how the census has been conducted United States. And so it's been challenging and very rewarding, and just an endless well of information to explore.

Jenna Spinelle: So, a couple of questions here around the idea of, you know, what do we know now that counting has an effect? And how much of the population has been counted? How does that compare to previous census years? And how, how reliable is that count at this point?

Hansi Lo Wang: At this point, there are some early preliminary indicators that the Census Bureau has been putting out in terms of giving the public a sense of possibly just how accurate, how complete the census results are. They are really, in a way, a pinhole and really preliminary because a big part of the census process is processing. And that processing is when the Census Bureau takes all the information that is collected over much of the year, and goes over them, does, runs quality checks, and tries to eliminate duplicate responses. It's also trying to make sure that folks may have been reported in a home that isn't their usual residents are reported at their actual residence, a place where they're living or sleeping for most of the year. This takes time, it takes expertise by career officials who run quality checks over and over again in order to get it right. And there is a major question right now, whether or not the Census Bureau has enough time to run those checks that the Trump administration has put pressure on the Bureau to shorten and really cut back on a number of quality checks, and force the Bureau to redesign its plan for processing the results. And it really increases the risk of serious, serious errors in the results of the 2020 census. This is based on internal emails and reports that the Census Bureau's career officials have put out and released as part of the lawsuits over the census schedule. And so there are some indicators right now that the Census Bureau has put out, these are preliminary results, and they really show you what is happening at the moment, the Census Bureau says, at the national level, some at the state level, but it's really unclear what the status is at a local level, which is where a lot of people's focus is at because that is-- there are major implications here if account is wrong in a community, in a specific neighborhood, in terms of funding, in terms of local representation. And so those are all open questions. And so far, the Census Bureau has not released that kind of detailed level of data to really give any indication of how-- what the level of quality is of the census results. Part of that is unanswerable because the Census Bureau is still, still has to do this processing.

Jenna Spinelle; Yeah. And it seems there's also a bigger, bigger issue here, potentially, of just declining trust in the census, right? So if people are kind of conditioned not to trust the results, it is something in the constitution that has to happen every, every 10 years. I don't think it's likely we're going to have a constitutional amendment to change that, given our dynamics, although who knows what might change in, in 10 years, but are people in, within the Census Bureau thinking about these bigger term issues of trust in their, the institution and then the work that they're doing?

Hansi Lo Wang: I think the Census Bureau career officials are always thinking about trust because that, they, they can't do their jobs without having some level of public trust. These are, yes, the Census Bureau is constitutionally mandated, and there are federal laws that require participation, but Census Bureau survey and general survey methodology tells us that the best quality data is from participants who volunteer their information, that give information, share information about themselves, about their households voluntarily and that requires public trust, public trust in that the Census Bureau is doing this for the public good, that the federal government is doing this for the public good, that the Census Bureau and whatever administration is currently in power will uphold laws that protect the confidentiality of census information collected, that will keep information, people's personally identifiable information, confidential for 72 years, that the information will be, only be used for statistical purposes. This all hinges on the public trusting the Census Bureau, the federal government to uphold those laws to do this for the public good. And the question now is, is that this past year, especially, not just because of the pandemic, but the Trump administration has forced upon the census so many last minute schedule changes with little to no public explanation when those changes are made, with little to no public input, that it's a real question what long term impact that can have on parts of the public going forward, on when they think about the census will they think about this chaos that has erupted for this 2020 census, that there were weeks, days where I literally, by the hour, I was looking at court filings trying to figure out, to tell the public, how much longer is census counting going to last? It could have changed by the hour for some days. It was nailbiting. It felt like a roller coaster ride. All of this is certainly exciting for a reporter to track, but is really, it really throws into question whether or not that engenders, that promotes public trust going forward.

Emily Reddy: If you're just joining us, you're listening to Take Note on WPSU. Today's interview is with Hansi Lo Wang, who reports on the 2020 census for NPR. Today's conversation is from the Democracy Works podcast, a collaboration between WPSU and the McCourtney Institute for Democracy at Penn State. The Institute's Jenna Spinelle interviewed Hansi Lo Wang for a live virtual event, including attendees questions.

Jenna Spinelle: A couple questions in the Q&A, here, I'm gonna try to put together regarding this, this issue about citizens being, being counted as far as reapportionment goes. So, first, has any other president ever thought about, or is there any, any evidence that any other president has tried to do something like this? And then, also, what, what are the stakes here? Somebody in the Q&A referenced that there was a Washington Post article that cited that we're maybe only talking about one or two seats if, if non-citizens are not included in this, this reapportionment count?

Hansi Lo Wang: I'll start with the second question. I think the shortest answer is we don't know what reapportionment ultimately is going to look like. And a big part of that is because of the pandemic. We really don't know how much of a disruption the pandemic caused. There was so much migration that we know about through surveys that the Pew Research Center has done, through, through news reporting that we don't know how that may have really changed projections made by demographers and redistricting specialists when they tried to figure out, game out how many seats each state might lose if "this" happened, if "that" happened. The pandemic is a major X factor that I don't think anyone can really fairly quantify. I don't think it's possible. We just don't know the extent to which it really disrupted the census. So I think, because of that, I would say any projection that you read-- this is how I do it: Any projection that I read, you gotta take it with a major grain of salt because this census occurred, in addition to last minute changes by the Trump administration to the schedule, in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic. So who knows what these numbers ultimately bear out, and who knows how that ultimately will affect each state's Sheriff congressional seats in the end. We just don't know. Jenna, if you don't mind repeating that first question.

Jenna Spinelle: Sure. Yeah, yeah. The the first part was just has any other president tried to do something similar to what the Trump administration is, is trying to do now with leaving people who are not citizens out of the reapportionment count?

Hansi Lo Wang: As far as I know, no U.S. president has called for and issued a presidential memo that sets as U.S. policy the exclusion of unauthorized immigrants from the apportionment count.

Jenna Spinelle: And so thinking about this, this case that's now before the Supreme Court. What is the government's argument here for, for excluding unauthorized immigrants from, from reapportionment?

Hansi Lo Wang: Essentially, the Trump administration is arguing that because of the Supreme Court decision in 1992, Franklin v. Massachusetts, that decision specified that the president does have authority, some discretion over, ultimately, what the numbers are that are handed off to Congress, those apportionment counts. And that it is what the president hands off to Congress, and not what the Census Bureau, through the Commerce Secretary, hands off to the president, is, are the numbers that count. And so the Trump administration is arguing that, even though the president hasn't really exercised, any president before has really tried to exercise this kind of discretion to make this specific change, President Trump is now trying to exercise his discretion and to exclude unauthorized immigrants. What that is running up against, the challengers of the Trump administration's efforts are arguing, and what a lower court in New York has found, is that there are statutory laws, there are federal laws passed by Congress that specify that what the Commerce Secretary hands over to the President, and what the President is supposed to hand over to Congress, is a total population based on the census; and that has been interpreted to be every person living in the country, regardless of immigration status, and that has been the case for, since the very first census in 1790. Those counts have included those citizens and non-citizens, regardless of immigration status.

Jenna Spinelle: How, how have you gone about developing sources within the Bureau? And, you know, prior to the 2020 census process? What had the Bureau's relationship with the media been?

Hansi Lo Wang: Hmm, I think, I guess I took a bit of a field-of-dreams approach: If you report, they will come. And I've, I've, I've kept on reporting over the years, and a lot of folks have reached out to me. And, you know, I, I learned very quickly that the Census Bureau is a federal agency made of dedicated career officials, that really, in addition to upholding their, their oath to Title 13, you know, certainly they cannot release people's personally identifiable information, but they also are very loyal to the institution and generally do not speak to the media when they are not authorized. And this is an organization, an agency made up of career officials who are dedicated to the mission of getting an accurate and complete count of every person living in the country every 10 years, and that is really the bulk of their focus, this once a decade project that they are preparing for in the years in between. And, and so speaking to the media, generally, is something that they generally shy away from, given the number of controversies and decisions made by the Trump administration that really have gone against career officials' recommendations and, and research by the Census Bureau itself-- that has motivated a lot of folks to speak out not just to me, but to other journalists at other news organizations. And, generally speaking, the Census Bureau, I think, generally considers itself as an information source for the country, and often holds webinars and events trying to encourage members of the public to use the data because ultimately this is public data. And so the Census Bureau, I think, generally, has seen itself as an information clearinghouse. But I have noticed that in recent months, especially, that a lot of questions that I've tried to get answers from, from the Census Bureau, there have been delays. And I have not gotten answers to some of my questions, given, presumably, you know, interference from the administration.

Jenna Spinelle: Several questions here about-- do, do you anticipate a broad legal challenge kind of questioning the the results of the census? And is there anything that the, that if, if Joe Biden is elected, anything his administration might be able to do to have, have a recount or are those-- anything like that?

Hansi Lo Wang: I think if the past is any indicator of what we're, we're heading towards, generally speaking, after each census, there is a slew of lawsuits that are filed from states, from cities, local municipalities challenging the results of the census once they, once folks get their hands on them and do some analysis and figure out exactly what it means for states and local communities in terms of local representation. And, and that's very likely to happen after the 2020 census, especially given all the challenges and all the questions about accuracy, given the pandemic, given the last minute changes that the Trump administration forced upon the census schedule. So it's, I'm getting ready to continue being a court reporter for the foreseeable future, beyond the Supreme Court fight. In terms of what a Biden administration can do, if Joe Biden is, Vice President Joe Biden is elected the next president of the United States, that's a, that's a really interesting set of questions that I'm also trying to figure out as well. I think, you know, a lot of questions that I often see is, "Can this census be redone? Can we just redo this census?" And I think one way I'm approaching this question as I do my reporting, is you really got to break that up into more questions. It's much more complicated than just, "Op, let's just redo it," because this is the largest peacetime operation, mobilization of the federal government that the government undertakes; this, this is a huge, huge project. And, and just redoing it is not as easy as it sounds. And I think, in addition to the political will, in addition to who is president, it's a question of who is controlling the House, who's controlling the Senate; this is expected to be the most expensive U.S. census in history, around $16 billion. And that's not a lot when you look at the whole share of federal expenditures. But there has been ongoing pressure from lawmakers over the years to really cut down the cost of conducting a census. So I think that really leaves open the question of whether or not lawmakers are willing to pay for another census, even if there is political will to do that. And those are questions that I think are certainly something I'll be exploring, depending on how this election turns out.

Jenna Spinelle: And can you walk us through the next steps in the timeline of where we go from here, at least as you know them right now? I realize it changes by the day, sometimes by the hour, but what are some of the major milestones we should be looking at moving forward?

Hansi Lo Wang: I think the next major news story that I'm watching for is what the Supreme Court decides, whether or not there's, the Supreme Court is going to allow President Trump to exclude, try to exclude, because it's a question of whether or not he can practically do this, whether or not President Trump can try to exclude unauthorized immigrants from the apportionment counts. The Supreme Court is expected to hear oral arguments at the end of November, November 30. And it's really up to the Supreme Court when it releases its decision, but it does by hearing oral arguments November 30th. It does allow the court to make a decision and release that decision sometime in December, which would be right before this legal reporting deadline of December 31st, which is another key date; that's when federal law says the latest state population counts are due from the Census Bureau, through the Commerce Secretary who oversees the Bureau, to the President. And that really kicks off an appotionment process that then continues on to, if I, if I have my math correct, January 10th is when the president is required to deliver the latest state apportionment counts to Congress to certify. And sometime in January, I don't have that date off hand, is when the clerk of the House is required to certify those results and send them off to each of the state governors. And so that's the process coming up. Generally speaking, there, the Census Bureau, just to be clear, hasn't stopped door knocking now, counting has stopped, but it is still door knocking at some homes to conduct what's known as a post-enumeration survey; this is not at every household, this is only at some households. The Census Bureau is conducting these interviews to try to figure out the undercount rates for historically undercounted groups. The way the Census Bureau figures out the rate at which Black people, Latinx people, Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, American Indians, what rate at which they are undercounted, and they have been undercounted decade after decade. That rate is determined by this post-enumeration survey, which is expected to continue this in-person interviewing, expect to continue through December 22nd. So that's something that will still be happening. The Census Bureau is currently hiring workers for that, so another thing to watch out for.

Jenna Spinelle: Yeah. And is there any, any historical precedents for Congress not, not accepting, and I don't know if that's, that's the right term, but of Congress kind of stepping in at any point along the way in this, this process?

Hansi Lo Wang: There is a precedent in Congress not accepting the results of a census. This happened of the 1920s census. And for about a decade after 1920 census, the seats in Congress were not reapportioned, which means that the number of seats that each state had in 1910 census, that remained the same through the 1920s until a new law was passed and after the 1930 census, if I'm getting my history right, and if I don't get this right, there will be census historians that will be emailing me very soon, but after that, that's when this process became more automatic and there were specific steps. So there's that precedent. And also, there were times when the reporting deadline for the census results, the legal reporting deadlines were missed by the U.S. government and the Congress, this is in the 1800s, Congress did ultimately pass laws that extended those deadlines. And they, you know, the, the apportionment continued to happen afterwards. So that's, that's something to keep in mind as well.

Jenna Spinelle: Yeah. So they can, unclear right now whether or not they will. So, Hansi, I know you started the year, I saw an Instagram post from you, you were somewhere in rural Alaska covering the very first census counting back in, in January and--

Hansi Lo Wang: Toksook Bay, Alaska.

Jenna Spinelle: --yeah, thank you. That was the long ago, before times. I'm wondering, you know, how you thought your coverage might unfold this year versus how it actually has unfolded in our pandemic world.

Hansi Lo Wang: Well, I was expecting to do a lot more traveling and, and really, and really, and see how the census was going in different parts of the country, in addition to how it went in Toksook Bay, Alaska, that, that fishing village on the southeast coast of Alaska, where the 2020 census officially started, per tradition to start in Alaska native village when the ground is still frozen and it's easy for census workers to get around and try to get communities counted before fishing and hunting season really kicks off. And when I came back, you know, weeks later, the pandemic was declared and we all went into lockdown. I didn't expect to cover the census really from my apartment. But that's how I've been doing my job. Fortunately, I've been able to have the privilege to be able to work from home, but that really has limited my perspective on how the census has been going on the ground. And, you know, despite the pandemic, the census did continue on the ground. Census Bureau workers put on face masks and tried to socially keep social distance. And it's been not what I imagined and, and certainly I don't think, you know, it's just the year of COVID, so here we are.

Jenna Spinelle: Yeah, yeah. What is, what's the, the most creative thing you saw to encourage census participation?

Hansi Lo Wang: I didn't see this because of the pandemic, but I spoke to a community organizer in Texas who went around, this is just before really lockdowns occurred around the country, and drove around with a bullhorn and in a car in, in the Colonias in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, some of the hardest to count parts, hardest to count communities in the country, and, and trying his best to get the word out by just with the bullhorn from his car. That's the way to do it, you know, socially distance, and I think there were versions of that that happened in other parts of the country.

Jenna Spinelle: Well, Hansi, this is, this has been great. Thank you again to everyone who asked such great questions, and thank you all for joining us today.

Hansi Lo Wang: Bye bye.

Emily Reddy: Hansi Lo Wang reports on the 2020 census for NPR. Today's interview is from the Democracy Works podcast, a collaboration between WPSU and the McCourtney Institute for Democracy at Penn State. The Institute's Jenna Spinelle was the interviewer. You can hear more Take Note and Democracy Works interviews at wpsu.org/radio. I'm Emily Reddy, WPSU.

Jenna Spinelle is the Communications Specialist for the McCourtney Institute for Democracy at Penn State. She is responsible for shaping all of the institute's external communication, including website content, social media, multimedia, and media outreach.