Expert Commentary

Election Beat 2020: The ongoing watchdog obligation to cover the US census

Tom Patterson asks whether the press has an obligation to increase its focus on the U.S. census as the new deadline for the count approaches. 

U.S. Census Bureau

Every 10 years, a U.S. election bestows a predictable long-term advantage to one of the two major parties. The 2010 election handed that edge to the Republicans, and they didn’t waste the opportunity for gerrymandering — manipulating the boundaries of an electoral district in a way that gives one party an unfair advantage. Even though Democratic candidates received more votes nationwide than did Republican candidates in the 2012 House elections, Republicans won a 234-201 seat majority.

That outcome paled alongside what happened in Wisconsin. After the 2010 election, the Republican-controlled legislature gerrymandered the state’s Assembly districts to an extent that made it impossible for Democrats to compete. In Wisconsin’s 2018 election, for instance, Republican candidates received only 45% of the statewide popular vote but won 63% of the State Assembly’s seats.

Unrestricted partisan gerrymandering was sanctioned by the Supreme Court in 2019. The ruling came in a 5-4 decision with the five Republican-appointed justices in the majority. “Excessive partisanship in districting leads to results that reasonably seem unjust,” said Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the majority. “But the fact that such gerrymandering is incompatible with democratic principles does not mean that the solution lies with the federal judiciary …” Speaking for the minority, Justice Elena Kagan wrote: “For the first time in this Nation’s history, the majority declares that it can do nothing about an acknowledged constitutional violation …”

The year 2020 has brought a new twist to what’s at stake in the decennial November election — the possibility that the U.S. census will be manipulated for partisan advantage. In early August, the Trump administration declared that the census count would end on Sept. 30 instead of the previous deadline of Oct. 31. From the standpoint of conducting a census in the midst of a pandemic, which compounded the difficulty of counting harder-to-reach residents, the decision made no sense. From a partisan standpoint, it made perfect sense. Unless the courts intervene, Republicans stand to gain from a shortening of the period. Every census ends up in an undercount, but it will be more severe this time. Racial and ethnic minorities and poor people, who lean Democratic, will constitute the large share of those left out. In turn, they will not be counted when congressional and state legislative districts are reapportioned.

What obligation do the news media have in confronting this dual threat to the integrity of our elections? The Supreme Court’s ruling places the gerrymandering threat mostly beyond the reach of whatever influence the press might have. Nonetheless, it has a duty after the election to monitor how individual states draw the boundaries of their election districts. The November election will end with Democrats and Republicans each in control of a substantial number of state governments. Gross abuses by either party in reshaping election districts should be highlighted to create pressure for more equitable outcomes. Democrats should get special scrutiny. Many of them have expressed outrage at Republicans’ abuse of redistricting power. Will they call out their own party if it does it?

The census threat is different in that the limit on the press’s influence is one of its own making. The norms of American journalism stand in the way of achieving a fuller census ahead of the Sept. 30 deadline. The carrying out of the census is not a Republican or Democratic prerogative. It’s a constitutional requirement that calls for an accurate count of the U.S. population. In turn, the count affects how federal funds and legislative seats are allocated between and within the states. As such, the integrity of the census falls squarely within the bounds of watchdog journalism. Indeed, the media sounded the alarm in early August when the Trump administration announced that the census process would be shortened.

Since then, the census issue has largely diminished in the news. Journalist Walter Lippmann predicted as much. Writing in the early 1920s, Lippmann noted that journalists concentrate on obtruding events rather than issues. Events “happen” and thus take a form that journalists recognize as news. Issues don’t happen, Lippman argued. They simply “unfold,” normally at a slow enough pace to escape journalists’ gaze.

Only rarely do issues alone drive the news, and normally only when stylized into a form that the audience will see as news. An example is the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis. Although almost nothing significant happened from one day to the next, the detention of American diplomats in Tehran was kept in the news by marking each day with a number. The hostages were released on Day 444.

In their classic study “Some Reasons Why Information Campaigns Fail,” sociologists Hebert Hymn and Paul Sheatsley highlighted conflicting messages and citizens’ short attention spans as obstacles to imparting vital public information. He also implicated the press for its tendency to turn quickly from one topic to the next, usually without looking backward. The census issue is no exception. The Trump administration’s census announcement in early August was prevalent in the news for not much longer than it took for Trump to dangle an enticing tweet.

Did the press’s watchdog obligation to the 2020 census end in early August with a blowing of the whistle? It’s not a simple question to answer, and journalists would differ in their views. But if the press’s obligation extends beyond the triggering event of early August, it has roughly two weeks left to blow the whistle as loudly and as often as it can. Americans need to know that time is running out for them to be counted. Today is Day 16 of the countdown, assuming the Sept. 30 deadline stands. Day 0 is Oct. 1. A countdown box on the front page of every American daily paper and every national and local newscast won’t produce a full count but would make a difference. On Oct. 1, if the news media try to blame a severe undercount squarely on the White House, media analysts might reasonably ask why journalists walked off the field in early August.        

Thomas E. Patterson is Bradlee Professor of Government & the Press at Harvard’s Kennedy School and author of the recently published Is the Republican Party Destroying Itself? Journalist’s Resource plans to post a new installment of his Election Beat 2020 series every week leading up to the 2020 U.S. election. Patterson can be contacted at


Further Reading:

Kyla Fullenwider and Greg Fischer. “Can Cities Save the Census?” Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, Harvard Kennedy School, April 1, 2019.

Herbert H. Hyman and Paul B. Sheatsley. “Some Reasons Why Information Campaigns Fail,” Public Opinion Quarterly, 1947.

Walter Lippmann. Public Opinion, 1997. Originally published in 1922 by Harcourt, Brace, and Company.

Thomas E. Patterson. Informing the News, 2013.

The Journalist’s Resource Guide to the 2020 Census.

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