It’s a new decade — the dawn of the 2020s! And that means it’s census season around the world!!! Illustration: US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, dressed in a blue-grey suit, stands at a microphone, saying: “[The Census] is one of the most vital and sensitive things we do in government. Any addition of a question usually takes five years of a process to make sure that it is vetted, that every word has been tested, to make sure that it’s effective.”
Humans have been counting ourselves for 6,000 years. The tally reveals who the governed are — key for laws and taxes. Illustration: Ancient, tattered document with columns of characters and lines.
The United Nations recommends that all national governments hold censuses at the end or beginning of each decade. In 2010, it was estimated 99% of the world’s population would be counted.
Population counts take different forms — many Nordic countries have ditched the census entirely and rely on population registers, such as those compiled by hospitals, immigration centers and social services. France eschews the once-in-a-decade census, conducting a constant rolling census of one-seventh of the nation’s population every year — but is also prohibited by its secularism laws from asking the religion of its citizens. Illustration: At left, woman in winter clothes, with Norway’s flag above, throws form in trash; behind her, people line up outside hospital in mountainside town. At right, mustachioed man in striped T-shirt, with France’s flag above, sits with model of pie chart on table and 2020 calendar hanging on wall.
For some countries, demographics are so potentially explosive that they don’t conduct counts at all. Lebanon’s government is based on a population count from 1932 that has never been updated, as reapportionment based on a new count could lead to violence. Illustration: Bearded man looks worried, has sweat on forehead and gulps. Behind, five people of diverse ethnic backgrounds shout, “Count us!” to bald man in business suit, who replies, “It would break our government!”
In the United States, the Census is written into the foundation of the nation itself – the Constitution. It’s central to the way the country runs. Illustration: George Washington sits at a desk reviewing a document, a burning candle and a quill in an inkwell lie next to him.
The United States Census was designed by the founder to do two things:
Make a government based on federalism possible by establishing a population count upon which distributed power could be based. Both the House of Representatives and Electoral College are reapportioned every decade to reflect the demographics of the union. Illustration: Man in colonial clothing and white wig looks at chalkboard that shows figures of people with arrows to government buildings.
Create a framework for the westward expansion and American colonial enterprise by measuring the growth of the population and its westward movement every ten years, thereby regulating the pace at which territories became fully fledged states with equal rights. Illustration: Horse-drawn covered wagons and people travel on winding road through hilly green landscape.
Of course, the founders faced a more profound and brutal question about how to count a population that already existed within the nation: the native-born population of slaves descended from people brought in bondage from Africa. (Including Native Americans in the count wasn’t even considered!) Illustration: Three men in colonial clothing and white wigs. Two listen to one who has palms up and a word bubble that shows figure of person and question mark.
White Southerners pushed to include their slaves in the Census in order to expand their representative power in the House and Electoral college. Northerners resisted this as a “distortion of representative democracy.” Illustration: Bearded white man in hat with word bubble containing figure of person, equal symbol and number 1. Behind him, enslaved Black people labor in field, with plantation buildings and mountains in background.
The result was the 3/5ths compromise, which counted enslaved people of African descent as 3/5ths of a person for the purpose of representation — but obviously not for voting. Illustration: Bearded white man in colonial suit stands at left. Bearded Black man in loose shirt and pants stands at right, with two-fifths of his body missing. Equal symbol is between them.
From the first Census in 1790, this granted the slave states about one-third more representation than would have been warranted by their free population, delivering the margin of Electoral College votes that elected slaveholding Thomas Jefferson. Illustration: Five shirtless Black men carry Thomas Jefferson in wooden sedan chair.
Racial classification has remained central to the Census. Illustration: Hand holds quill pen over form with column labels “Free Whites,” “Other” and “Slaves,” each category further divided into “Male” and “Female.”
Changes to these categories have reflected patterns of population changes to the USA. “Indian” was added in 1860. “Chinese” added in 1870. “Mexican” in 1930. Illustration: White man in a long coat writes on clipboard next to row of three men in different traditional garb signifying that one is Native American, one is Chinese and one is Mexican.
In 1970, “Hispanic” was added to the Census, a language-based ethnic group spanning white, Black and native racial backgrounds, thus allowing more nuanced combinations of identity. Illustration: Group of people with different skin tones, ages, clothing and hair style/color, stand together smiling. The person in the center wears a hat with the Puerto Rican flag.
But it was only in 2000 that, for the first time, the Census allowed respondents to select more than one classification. Illustration: Male surveyor in baseball cap with clipboard at front door of brick building, talking to dark-skinned woman and fair-skinned man holding their baby.
The racial classification data gathered by the Census are what guides the protective shield of the Voting Rights Act. But studies have shown that African-Americans are consistently undercounted by 4%. Illustration: Black man in green zip jacket holds up a form in each hand; one has a word bubble with a red X, the other with a green checkmark.
While undercounts for the population as a while have decreased substantially since 1940, African-American and Hispanic populations have been persistently impacted. Illustration: Group of seven people of diverse racial backgrounds and darker skin tones frown toward a likely white person writing the number 2 on clipboard.
And as always, race and politics are deeply intertwined. Illustration: Side view of gray-haired man with glasses and word bubble. He is saying: “The decennial Census is inherently political. As an institution of the government that allocated power and public funds, it could not be otherwise.” — Kenneth Prewitt, director of the US Census Bureau 1998-2001.
In 1920, the Census showed that eight northern urban states, buoyed by population growth from immigration to coastal cities, would gain congressional seats at the expense of ten Southern and rural Western states. Illustration: US map showing people moving northward and eastward.
But the reapportionment was stalled by a conservative bloc in Congress for a decade, leaving the old districts in place and denying the growing multicultural parts of the country their representative due. The fight wasn’t settled until the next count in 1930. Illustration: Bald man in brown three-piece suit, bowtie and glasses holding red marker and standing next to map of the US crossed out in red.
Reapportionment is an especially fraught process in America because, unlike in other countries, it is often the politicians themselves who are drawing their own districts in states, opening up the process to intense gerrymandering. Illustration: Two men each look at their own easel with a whiteboard containing images of houses; they have drawn red lines signifying two different ways to group the houses into districts, one much more gerrymandered than the other.
This became acute after the Census of 2010, when new data processing and mapping techniques allowed Republicans to cement their hold on state and House districts across the country. Illustration: A set of computer equipment, one machine labeled “Gerrymander Tron-2000,” displays data on multiple screens and prints out Census documents and red-and-blue US maps.
So far, the 2020 Census has been an outright political brawl — with much of the conflict revolving around the legality of adding a citizenship question to all the forms. Illustration: Man wearing red ballcap faces off woman in burgundy head covering. His word bubble shows US flag followed by question mark. Her word bubble shows US flag.
A citizenship question had been asked up until the 1950 Census, then was removed in the 1960 Census, then added back to a more detailed “long form” questionnaire that only 20% of households received in the 1970 Census through the 2000 Census. Illustration: Three identical men wearing clothes from different decades write on clipboards. Each man’s word bubble has a question mark, but the one in the middle has a red X over it.
The long form Census was discontinued entirely when the government switched its more detailed data collection apparatus to the American Community Survey, a rolling annual count of a randomly selected subset of American households in every state. Illustration: Street full of two-story houses with lawns.
The Trump administration’s attempt to reinstate the question for all respondents was predicted by most experts to result in suppressed Hispanic responses, which could have had a substantial effect on reapportionment of power in the next decade: Illustration: US Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross holds Census form; President Trump grins behind him.
But, in a dramatic move, the Supreme Court ruled the Trump administration had not been forthcoming in providing their reason for the need to reinstate the question, forcing it to be withdrawn. Illustration: Five Supreme Court justices, with Ruth Bader Ginsburg at the center holding a gavel, behind bench. Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan are on the left; Sonia Sotomayor and John Roberts are to the right.
Now, with the once every 20 year event of a Census taking place in a presidential election year, the politics swirling around it have been amplified. Illustration: Man with clipboard stands next to a sandwich board displaying a “vote here” poster with the US flag as people walk into a large building.
But the reality is, the Census has never not been political.
After all, data is power, and who counts matters. Illustration: Uncle Sam draws a line on a table that has people grouped in three circles.

This piece was produced in cooperation with the Nib