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A boycott of the 2020 census could be costly

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 as a new ABA Legal Fact Check shows, individuals who avoid even a single question on the census could face potential criminal consequences, including a fine of up to $5,000, although there has not been a prosecution in nearly 50 years.

Official 2020 Census Day is April 1, when questionnaires, which are sent to every U.S. household, are due to be returned. If no response is returned — or if the answers are incomplete — the Census Bureau will follow up to get the information. The final population tally is used to divvy up more than $675 billion annually to states for all sorts of programs.

By 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.

But the fine could be significantly higher than $100 for purposely avoiding questions. The Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 effectively raised the penalty to as much as $5,000 for refusing to answer a census question. 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. In 1960, a New York man answered the basic census questions but refused for privacy reasons to answer the expanded questionnaire, which asked about the economic status of his household. He was fined $100 and received a 60-day suspended prison sentence.

A decade later, a Hawaii resident appealed a conviction and a $50 fine for not fully answering his questionnaire. He 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 reversed his conviction. 

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