Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The government is encouraging Americans to respond to this year's census online, prompting concerns that millions who lack internet access may not be properly counted.

Why it matters: The 2020 census determines how federal funding is allocated across the country, so any undercount matters, and one caused by the digital divide would skew heavily against less well-off citizens.

What's happening: Americans will receive invitations in the mail to respond online to the census beginning March 12.

  • This is the first "online first" census, though some households will also receive a paper questionnaire. Part of the calculus for which households get the hard copy relies on whether they're in areas with spotty or no internet access.
  • Though the online response is encouraged, all Americans do have the option to respond by mail or phone.

The problem with "online first," Federal Communications Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel believes, is that the Census Bureau may be underestimating the number of Americans without reliable internet access and could end up stretched too thin to properly count those people.

Details: The Census Bureau is relying in part on FCC data on broadband deployment across the country to help determine what areas lack access.

  • Official FCC figures suggest 21 million Americans don't have broadband, but Rosenworcel, a Democrat, said that number "radically overstates" the level of service because of how the FCC collects the data. A Microsoft study revealed that more than 162 million people don't use the internet at broadband speeds.
  • "The truth is between those two numbers, but it leaves me concerned to realize that the Census Bureau is directing these digital-first mailers to households that may have no access, where there may be no internet service," Rosenworcel said in an interview.
  • "It feels so easy for people in some communities who can't imagine their household without really high-speed broadband, but we've got to remember, there are big swaths of this country that don't have service and there are people who can't afford service."

The problem could be compounded, Rosenworcel says, because the census is hiring fewer people than in 2010 to follow up with households that don't respond.

Yes, but: Households that don't respond online will receive a paper questionnaire before the government has to send someone out.

  • On March 20, the Census will begin posting response rates for 2020 to track where more efforts are needed.
  • The FCC tally is also not the only factor in determining who is less likely to respond online. The Census reviewed data from the American Community Survey to find areas with low internet connectivity rates, and it took into account whether there's a high proportion of the population over age 65 when determining where to send an initial paper questionnaire in the mail, a spokesperson said.
  • "The bureau built that contingency planning in there," said Maria Filippelli, a
    Public Interest Technology Census Fellow at New America. "Online first is beneficial and easily accessible for a lot of people, but not everybody. So to get everybody counted, there's the phone and paper. My hope is that’s good for everybody."

What's next: Libraries are working to support the online-first census as part of broader efforts to bridge the digital divide in their communities, including Prince George's County in Maryland.

  • Roughly 30 percent of residents there were not counted during the last census, causing the county to lose out on federal funding and prompting an awareness campaign that each person who participates is contributing $18,250 in public funds over 10 years, said Nicholas Brown, chief operating officer for communication and outreach for the county library system.
  • The library system is providing a dedicated computer in every branch to complete the census, loans out WiFi hot-spots to patrons and is working with PTAs and schools to provide care for students while parents fill out the census at schools, Brown said.

The big picture: The first online census underscores the tension between government systems and processes moving online before significant portions of the population can follow.

Go deeper: This year's census may be the toughest count yet

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