07/02/2009 12:41 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Smearing the Census

by Faiz Shakir, Amanda Terkel, Matt Corley, Benjamin Armbruster, Ali Frick, Ryan Powers, and Ian Millhiser

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The 2010 Census will be sent to every American household as mandated by the Constitution. Despite the importance of this decennial event, a number of right-wing figures have begun spinning conspiracy theories about the Census and what the government does with the data it collects. RNC Chairman Michael Steele said last month that President Obama intended to use the Census as part of what he called an "ongoing political campaign." Right-wing talker Neal Boortz declared, "I will respond to the Census, but the only information I will give them is the number of adults who live in my household." Former Bush speechwriter Meghan Clyne warned that the Census Bureau is "forcing Americans to disclose sensitive information about their finances, health and lifestyles," despite the fact that she gives similar information to the IRS on her tax form every year. So far, the most visible and vocal figure in this baseless fear-mongering campaign has been Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN), who has been trashing the Census with false and uninformed claims in an attempt to improve her standing with the right wing of her party. An anonymous Republican senator has placed a hold on Obama's nominee to direct the Census, Dr. Robert Groves, which is delaying mission-critical preparations for 2010.

THE 2010 CENSUS: The 2010 Census will count "everyone residing in the United States: in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the Island Areas," as mandated by the Constitution. But the importance of the Census goes far beyond a simple tally of the U.S. population. Conducted since 1790, officials use the data gathered to apportion the seats in the House of Representatives; "distribute $300 billion in federal funds to local, state and tribal governments each year"; define local school districts; and make many other urban planning decisions including "where to provide services for the elderly, where to build new roads and schools, or where to locate job training centers." To ensure the most accurate count possible, Americans are required by law to fill out the Census. For the first time, the 2010 Census will make use of wireless handheld computers "with the ability to transmit collected data back to the Census Bureau in near real-time." Further, for the first time, the Census will count same-sex married couples. The Bush administration had ruled out recognizing such couples, citing the Defense of Marriage Act, but the Obama administration reversed that decision last month. The Census has "been simplified to include only 10 questions, the shortest in the survey's 219-year history" with the longer American Community Survey sent to a small subset of Americans to collect more detailed demographic information. Contrary to right-wing claims, the Census Bureau is prohibited by law from sharing non-anonymous data with any other individual or federal agency.

BACHMANN'S LIES: Bachmann began her anti-Census campaign in mid-June, declaring on the Washington Times radio show that she would illegally refuse to answer any Census question beyond "how many people are in our home...because the Constitution doesn't require any information beyond that." Bachmann said that she could not trust the government with any more information than that because "ACORN has been named one of the national partners...and they will be in charge of going door-to-door and collecting data from the American public." The community organizing group ACORN -- one of the contemporary right's favorite boogeymen -- has indeed been named one of over 250 "national partners" in the 2010 Census. But as an ACORN official explained to ThinkProgress, the organization "will not have any role in collecting Census responses." Rather, as PolitiFact explains, the role of ACORN and other national partners will be to "simply promote the availability of temporary Census jobs." Anyone who applies as a result of promotional work done by organizations like ACORN will be "required to go through a background check that includes an FBI name check and fingerprint check so that felons are not hired to work on the 2010 Census." Despite this, Bachmann continued to make her outrageous claims in subsequent media appearances. On Fox News, she claimed her reluctance to fill out the Census stemmed from a fear that the data would be used to "round up" Americans. She also falsely claimed that the Census Bureau does not ask if respondents are American citizens. Bachmann's fear-mongering was roundly mocked by comedian Stephen Colbert and harshly condemned by the largest newspaper in her home state of Minnesota. Finally, Bachmann's conspiracy-laden concerns have become too much for even her Republican colleagues in the House. Yesterday, three of the four House Republicans on the subcommittee that oversees the Census released a statement calling her boycott plan "illogical, illegal and not in the best interest of our country." The members first attempted to dissuade Bachmann privately, but to no avail. As one GOP source told CongressDaily, "As long as Fox News keeps calling, she's going to keep going."

BACHMANN'S ANONYMOUS SENATE ALLY: A lower-profile, but arguably just as significant issue, confronts the Census in the Senate: "With little more than six months before the start of the next count, the Census Bureau still doesn't have a director." This is occurring even though the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs unanimously approved Groves, Obama's nominee, nearly two months ago. The full Senate has yet to vote on Groves because one anonymous member has placed a hold on his nomination. Before being nominated, Groves served as director of the University of Michigan's Survey Research Center and before that served as the "Bureau's associate director of statistical design from 1990 to 1992." Mother Jones speculated that the hold was the result of right-wing fears that Groves might use statistical-sampling to adjust the Census results. As the Wall Street Journal explained, Groves "was among a group of Bureau officials who advocated [the use of sampling] after it became evident that the 1990 Census had failed to count nearly five million people." Indeed, despite agreement among social scientists that sampling would be a more accurate way to conduct the Census, the right wing has long feared the use of such sampling. Polling expert Nate Silver explains that this fear stems from the likelihood that such adjustment would better represent harder-to-count Americans living in urban areas who are more likely to vote Democratic. But this fear is unfounded, as Groves has already ruled out the use of such techniques in both the 2010 and 2020 Census. If that were not enough to mollify the anonymous senator delaying mission-critical preparations for next year's Census, the Supreme Court ruled as unconstitutional the "use of statistical sampling methods to obtain population figures for determining how many of the 435 seats in the House of Representatives go to each of the 50 states" in 1999.