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Perspective | An invitation to participate in activities of a democracy

The slender official-looking envelope arrived in my mailbox last Friday, a small sign of normality in a time thrown out of whack by a contagion. Out came a letter on light blue paper, addressed to “Dear Resident,’’ with an “invitation to respond to the 2020 Census.”

As a frequent consumer of census data, I had anticipated the letter with its 12-digit code for responding online by April 1. “We need your help,” said the letter signed by the director of the Census Bureau, “to count everyone in the United States by providing basic information about all adults, children and babies living or staying at this address.”

Because I live in a husband-wife household — with grandchildren as frequent visitors, not residents — I spent barely five minutes answering the questions on age, gender, race, and ethnicity to describe two persons. For households with more “adults, children and babies,’’ the census questionnaire should take only about 10 minutes.

Despite the ease of answering, North Carolinians have not rushed to respond. Rebecca Tippett and her colleagues at Carolina Demography are publishing a 2020 Census Tracker, which reported this week that North Carolina ranked 41st among the states in households responding by March 23. Only 13% of North Carolina households have answered the questionnaire online, compared to 16% nationwide.

North Carolina can do better, as should the nation, even in the midst of a public health crisis. Residents who do not respond online will receive a paper questionnaire to mail back to the Census Bureau — and to those who still do not respond, a census-taker will show up in person.

A threat to an accurate census that sparked debate a year ago no longer exists. A proposal to add a citizenship question to the census form raised justifiable concerns that it would inhibit some people from responding, for example, out of fear of deportation. A three-judge federal court blocked that proposal. To all who might harbor distrust, the Census Bureau offers assurances that, under the law, residents’ information is kept safe and confidential.

A census as accurate as possible, down to neighborhood level in a continent-wide country, provides an essential basis for apportioning representation and drawing districts for the nation’s Congress, state legislatures, and local governing bodies. Moreover, the census count goes into determining the allocation of funds for health, education, transportation, and other public services. And, its demographic findings contribute to protecting voting rights.

By offering a sweeping statistical portrait of the inhabitants of the United States, the census does more than give politicians, government  policymakers, business executives, and think-tanks information for their analyses and decision-making. The census gives Americans a deeper sense of their society. Many like the portrait, some not so much. Still, the census fosters an open, informed society — and Americans contribute by their participation.

Empowered by a provision in the Constitution, the national government has conducted a count of inhabitants every 10 years since 1790. So, too has the nation conducted elections for president, vice president, and seats in Congress every four years — through wars, economic distress, and social divisions — without interruption.

Now the nation confronts the challenges of completing a census and a free, fair election, both key activities of our democracy, with an accurate count while under the stresses imposed by the coronavirus. Four years ago in 16 states, including North Carolina, more than half the voters cast early, absentee, or by-mail ballots.

The moment is ripe for a serious debate, in both states and nation, over the logistics, costs, and safeguards of nationwide voting by mail. Perhaps before the Nov. 3 election day, an envelope will arrive with a ballot and an “invitation’’ to take part in the 2020 Election.

Ferrel Guillory

Ferrel Guillory is the Director of the Program in Public Life and Professor of the Practice at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media, and the Vice Chairman of EducationNC.