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U.S. Census: You need to know about ‘Disclosure Avoidance Modernization’

Municipal population numbers, data will be randomly jiggered

By David Wildstein, April 27 2021 4:02 pm

There’s a new term New Jerseyans might start hearing over the next few months as the U.S. Census Bureau begins to transmit municipal population data.

It’s called Disclosure Avoidance Modernization.

Simply put, it means that that the U.S. Census will “randomly jigger” certain statistics, including total populations of municipalities, in order to prevent super computers to penetrate the identities of individuals who participated in the census.

The adjusted totals – real population data might be kept secret in some cases – could also affect financial aid to municipalities, albeit by a statistically insignificant amount.

While the total state population of 9,288,994 is an exact number, the total municipal populations, including wards and census tracts, will not be.  They’ll be affected by what the Census Bureau calls “statistical noise” to avoid “modern reidentification threats.”

Delays in providing census data to states has been blamed on both the COVID-19 pandemic and the need to initiate disclosure avoidance protocols.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, “the rise of computational power that threatens to reveal confidential information.”

“It is now possible, using sophisticated algorithms on powerful systems, to reverse-engineer large sets of aggregated, supposedly de-identified data,” the agency said in court filings.

Census officials say a test run showed the total population count for the average county was off by less than 1% using the disclosure avoidance system.   At the block level, the numbers are off by an average of 7.7 people.

“The Census Bureau’s decision to use differential privacy as its statistical method to meet the goal of avoiding the disclosure of individual responses may not be the best method to ensure states receive the most accurate data for redistricting purposes,” said Tim Storey, the executive director of the National Conference of State Legislatures, in a letter to lawmakers last year.

Since states must comply with the Voting Rights Act and the U.S. Constitutions “one-person, one-vote” standard, Disclosure Avoidance Modernization could affect the integrity of redistricting, Storey stated.

“If block-level census data is released in a form that is known to not represent the actual number of people enumerated at the block level, states may find themselves litigating based on the quality and accuracy of federal census data before plans are drawn and even afterwards,” said Storey.

It’s not just congressional and legislative redistricting that is affected.

The random jiggering of census data might affect county commissioner districts in Atlantic, Essex and Hudson counties, and the redrawing of municipal wards throughout the state.

The State of Alabama filed a lawsuit in two weeks ago, claiming that Disclosure Avoidance Modernization violates federal laws requiring the disclosure of accurate data necessary to the redistricting process.

The U.S. Census, in their federal court filings, maintains that population counts are simply a snapshot in time anyway.

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