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A lack of funding and leadership could jeopardize the 2020 census. That's a big deal.

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A lack of funding and leadership could jeopardize the 2020 census. That's a big deal.

WATCH | The U.S. Census Bureau is about to majorly ramp-up operations in preparation for the decennial census in 2020. But a lack of funding and a leadership gap could throw the 2020 census into question and that could have a huge impact on American democracy. 

What's the census and why does it matter? 

The decennial census is a survey of every American in the country that happens every ten years. The survey typically asks people for their name, address, sex, race and how many people live in the household. 

The census is required by the Constitution and data determines the distribution of power in the House of Representatives and the makeup of political districts in state and local governments. 

Basically, the count from the census helps make sure the distribution of power in the House is proportional to the population in each state, and that has a big impact on American democracy. 

Rustbelt states like Michigan, Minnesota, and Ohio that are seeing a drop in population, could lose seats in Congress while states in the south and the west, like Florida, Texas, and Oregon could gain representatives. 

So the next census could have a big impact on the 2020 election. 

 The data collected in the decennial census also has a big impact on things that affect your daily life. 

Without census data, lawmakers and public officials won't know which resources are needed where. 

"It drives six hundred billion dollars in funding every year to things like public education, roads, highways, transportation, veteran's benefits, housing. All of those are based on census data that’s collected every ten years," said Phil Sparks, co-director of The Census Project, a watchdog group.

There's huge stakes in terms of democracy in the United States.
Phil Sparks, The Census Project

Trouble ahead 

Sparks and other experts say there is a big threat to making sure the 2020 census is accurate -- a lack of funding and leadership at the Census Bureau. 

Getting an accurate count of every single American is pretty expensive. The 2010 census cost about $13 billion. 

This time around the bureau is switching to an electronic survey, which is meant to streamline costs. 

However, at a recent House Appropriations subcommittee hearing, the bureau's director John Thompson told lawmakers that the project was behind schedule and nearly 50 percent over budget. 

The federal budget for 2017 passed by Congress funds the Census Bureau at ten percent below its request and President Trump's 2018 budget proposal falls far short of what experts say is needed to prepare for the 2020 survey. 

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Typically, in year eight of the ten-year census cycle, the activity at the bureau will ramp up dramatically as workers prepare for the survey. The budget usually ramps up proportionally, but not this time. 

Experts say if the bureau doesn't get the money soon it won't be able to prepare properly and that could mean an inaccurate census. 

"It's almost like you were building a bridge that had to be reconstructed, and I withhold the money from your construction until the very last moment, until a month before it should be built, you can't actually catch up in enough time," said former Census Bureau Director Robert Groves,  who oversaw the 2010 survey. 

The Census Bureau tried to switch to an electronic system for the 2010 census, and a technical malfunction which ultimately led to the system's failure ended up costing $3 billion extra. 

But experts say its important to get the new system up and running this time around, in order to prevent hacks and to ensure an accurate count. 

"If Congress doesn't save the census by appropriating more than the Trump administration has suggested, then we're going to have a census disaster," Sparks said. 

Last month, a group of 14 Democratic Senators sent a letter to the House Appropriations subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies, urging the committee to provide adequate funding for the bureau. 

"Failure to invest in planning and preparation now could leave the Census Bureau with no choice but to use traditional counting methods that are expensive and less accurate," the Senators wrote. 

Leadership hole 

You might have missed it, but on the same day that Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, John Thompson, the director of the Census Bureau, submitted his resignation. He will leave office June 30, several months before his term was supposed to end. 

Sparks says his exit couldn't come at a worse time. 

"If the census does not have a director in place, they're tied, one hand tied behind their back," he said. 

It could be a long time before a the bureau gets a new director. Trump will have to have a candidate vetted and then that person will need to be confirmed by the Senate. 

But Groves says director Thompson's early exit could be a blessing in disguise because it draws attention to the needs at the bureau. 

"Getting this in the queue of appointments as early as possible is a good thing," he said. "In a way, it was a gift to get attention to this as early as possible."

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