Skip to main content

ABA Legal Fact Check: It Is Illegal to Refuse to Answer Census Questions


ABA Legal Fact Check debuted in August 2017 and is the first fact check website focusing exclusively on legal matters. This article has been republished with permission. 

Earlier this month, calls on twitter suggested conducting a boycott of the 2020 U.S. census if it included a question about U.S. citizenship: “If the citizenship question is added I will boycott the census,” said one tweet.

But under the law, avoiding even a single question on the census can carry potential criminal consequences, including a fine of up to $5,000.

Every 10 years since 1790, the United States takes a national headcount as set forth in the U.S. Constitution. The first census counted fewer than 4 million people. The last in 2010 recorded 308.7 million.

As the Constitution says, the purpose of the census is to figure out how many seats each state receives in the U.S. House of Representatives. However, the federal government also allocates more than $675 billion annually to states for all sorts of programs, much of it based on census data.

Official 2020 Census Day is April 1, when questionnaires, which are sent to every U.S. household, are due to be returned. If a response has not been received — or if the answers are incomplete — someone from the Census Bureau will follow up to get the information.

By law, the deadline for transmitting to the president the official state population counts for House apportionment is Dec. 31, 2020.

Under the relevant census law, refusal to answer all or part of the census carries a $100 fine. The penalty goes up to $500 for giving false answers. In 1976, Congress eliminated both the possibility of a 60-day prison sentence for noncompliance and a one-year prison term for false answers.

However, the fine could be significantly higher than $100 for purposely avoiding questions. The Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 increased the fine for any criminal misdemeanor to as much as $5,000, effectively raising the penalty fiftyfold for refusing to answer a census question. Any prosecution would be handled by the U.S. Department of Justice, and a census spokeswoman has said, “We view this approach as a last resort.”

In fact, there have only been a handful of prosecutions for noncompliance in the history of the census, and none since 1970, according to media reports.

In 1960, William Rickenbacker of Briarcliff Manor, N.Y., answered the basic census questions but refused to answer the expanded questionnaire, which asked about the economic status of his household. He argued that it represented an invasion of his privacy. A federal judge disagreed, fining him $100 and handing him a 60-day suspended prison sentence.

A decade later, Hawaii resident William Steele appealed a conviction and a $50 fine for not fully answering his questionnaire. Steele argued that he had been singled out for prosecution because he participated in a public protest of the census. A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit agreed and threw out his conviction.

So, what could befall those who make good on their tweets saying they will boycott all or some part of the 2020 census? Their households would likely be visited by census staff seeking additional information and, because it is illegal, they could face a costly criminal fine. But unless the Justice Department reverses the practices of the past 40 years, it would appear unlikely that they find themselves in court.

Read more of ABA’s Legal Fact Check series here.

[Image via Mark Wilson/Getty Images]

Have a tip we should know? [email protected]

Filed Under:

Follow Law&Crime: