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A "census" is the official counting or enumeration of the people of a state, nation, district, or other political subdivision with details of their characteristics. The census is used to determine the allocation of seats in the United States House of Representatives. State governments also use the census to draw the boundaries of federal congressional districts, as well as those of state legislative seats. Finally, the census determines the distribution of billions of dollars of federal money to the states.

The United States Constitution requires a federal census every 10 years. The statutes say nothing about how to conduct a census. The Secretary of Commerce may exercise discretion in framing the questions which will elicit the necessary statistical information within the scope of the census to be undertaken. The gathered information may not be used to the detriment of any respondent or other person to whom such information relates, except in the prosecutions of alleged violations of the federal census laws.

State law may require the taking of a state census at regular intervals. A federal census has no force within a state except as provided by the constitution or laws of the state. Thus, the federal census for a certain year could not be accepted as the means of ascertaining the population of the municipalities of a state, unless states’ statutes allow such usage.

[Last updated in May of 2020 by the Wex Definitions Team]