This question seems to straddle politics/law, but I am going to post it here.

There is a lot in the US news lately about President Trump pushing to have a question on citizenship added to the 2020 US census (despite the Supreme Court ruling that he can't). I was just wondering: if that question does get added to the census, then (as a US-resident) would I have to answer it? What would the legal consequences be for me, if I refused to answer it and/or just left the space blank?

Also, would the rest of the census form still be valid and counted, if I neglect to answer one specific question?

  • 1
    Perhaps a more suitable politics.se question would be: Is Trump using fear of prosecution to gain political leverage (relative to the census questions)
    – BobE
    Jul 11, 2019 at 18:26
  • 2
    It seems fine here. After all, the census is used for making political decisions and the way it's organised is also determined politically.
    – JJJ
    Jul 12, 2019 at 4:38
  • 3
    @JJJ Quite! If this question isn't about "governments, policies and political processes", then you could certainly have fooled me.
    – WS2
    Jul 12, 2019 at 6:32
  • 1
    @WS2 isn't that a bit weird though? Are they going to check that you filled it out correctly? And if they do, why did you need to fill in the form? They must have already known the answers otherwise they couldn't check them. And if they don't check them, anyone could fill it in the way they wanted. Over here everyone just has ID (as a card and as a virtual account) which serves that purpose, once you sign in or you show the card, they know most of those basic things, at least for citizens (and I think for residents as well with a permanent residence permit).
    – JJJ
    Jul 12, 2019 at 8:07
  • 1
    @JJJ Well, in the UK if you make a false declaration on a voter registration form, with intent to deceive, then you are guilty of electoral fraud - for which you can be charged. I must admit I do not know much about how the American system works except that you do not have what we describe as an electoral roll, which lists all the persons in a voting district who are eligible to vote. I'm not clear as to how in the US the same person could not vote multiple times in different places, but I'm sure there is some system to prevent that happening. Or is it a case of "vote early vote often".
    – WS2
    Jul 19, 2019 at 21:08

2 Answers 2



You can be fined up to $100 for failure to answer any question on the decennial census.

The fine for submitting false information is up to $500.

Federal Law

$100 fine for not answering

13 U.S. Code § 221. Refusal or neglect to answer questions;  false answers

(a) Whoever, being over eighteen years of age, refuses or willfully neglects, when requested by the Secretary, or by any other authorized officer or employee of the Department of Commerce or bureau or agency thereof acting under the instructions of the Secretary or another authorized officer, to answer, to the best of his knowledge, any of the questions on any schedule submitted to him in connection with any census or survey provided for by subchapters I, II, IV, and V of chapter 5 of this title, applying to himself or to the family to which he belongs or is related, or to the farm or farms of which he or his family is the occupant, shall be fined not more than $100.

$500 fine for submitting false information

(b) Whoever, when answering questions described in subsection (a) of this section, and under the conditions or circumstances described in such subsection, willfully gives any answer that is false, shall be fined not more than $500.

Bigger fines

The Economic Census, which covers businesses and is conducted every 5 years, levies bigger fines for noncompliance.

8. What is the penalty for not responding?

The census law (Title 13, United States Code, Section 224), coupled with the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 (Title 18, Sections 3551, 3559, and 3571), provides for penalties of up to $5,000 for failure to report, and $10,000 for intentionally providing false information.

... and criminal prosecution. sample enforcement letter

Note that some media sources claim that the higher penalties established by the 1984 law also apply to the decennial census, but I haven't found anything official to support this claim.


A 2014 PolitiFact article quotes a Census Bureau spokesman saying:

"...no one has been prosecuted for failing to respond to a survey since the 1970 census".

Americans must answer U.S. Census Bureau survey by law, though agency hasn't prosecuted since 1970

  • Michael_B True penalties are the same, but bear in mind that each has a different purpose. The purpose of the Census is to enumerate (count people) the purpose of the ACS is to provide statistical demographic data for planning. Prior to the ACS the Census was used to collect demographic data (eg does your household have a radio?). The ACS now fills that role, consequently the census can (and should) focus on the counting of all persons in the country
    – BobE
    Jul 11, 2019 at 17:03
  • @BobE, Agreed, and I appreciate the clarification. I revised my answer. Jul 11, 2019 at 17:05
  • 3
    Note than an incriminating question might violate the Fifth Amendment and thus be legal to not answer. Whether or not citizenship is such a question could only be decided by the courts. Jul 11, 2019 at 17:14
  • 1
    @dolphin_of_france FWIW [ oddrandomthoughts.com/the-united-states-census-can-i-refuse ] William Rickenbacker in New York back in 1960. He decided that he was going to answer the basic questionnaire, but when he got to the questions concerning the economic standing of his household, he thought enough was enough. He felt it was an invasion of privacy so he refused to answer that portion.The Federal Government decided to make an example of him and prosecuted. A federal judge wound up fining him $100 as well as giving him a sixty-day suspended prison sentence. 1960
    – BobE
    Jul 11, 2019 at 18:22
  • 1
    @BobE, that's a famous case of willful noncompliance. As the original comment asked about innocent mistakes, I believe the French dolphin was asking about accidental noncompliance. Jul 11, 2019 at 18:27

I was an enumerator for the 2010 census, working on the Nonresponse Followup Operation (NRFU). Members of our team would go door-to-door to collect missing census information. Our instructions were to attempt to gather answers for every question.

The most important information on the census by far is the number of residents. It was recognized that enumerators would not be able to collect all the missing information - some non-respondants strongly object to answering some of the questions. Thus, a case was deemed acceptably resolved once we had collected the number of residents. No other answers were absolutely required.

In short, it seems that residents are counted, even if they answer no questions other than how many people live at their address.

Take this with a huge grain of salt. I was on the absolute bottom-most rung of the operational ladder, this was in 2010, and I can't confirm that all those incomplete forms were finally counted.

  • So, while the threat of potential prosecution is employed to "encourage" participation in the non-mission-critical questions ( the mission being the count or enumeration of people living in the country) - it would seem that Followup unit members did not insist on answers to questions that were not considered critical.
    – BobE
    Jul 12, 2019 at 14:31

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