The Census is going digital in 2020, with households classified as either “internet first” or “internet choice” based on their community’s access to reliable internet. If the U.S. Census Bureau determined that a geographic area has consistent internet access, households are labeled “internet first” and initially receive only an invitation to complete the census online. Otherwise, households will be considered “internet choice” and receive a paper form in addition to their online invitation.

Maria Fitzsimmons serves as census campaign director with the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. She works with sixty-three community-based partners across Cook County to ensure immigrant communities and collar counties have accurate information regarding this civic process. During our conversation, Fitzsimmons discussed the Census Bureau’s early stage outreach and major updates as the census goes digital.

Starting March 12, the Census Bureau officially invites households to complete the census online. “Most people are expecting that they’re going to get a paper form that they can physically fill out. And they will eventually get a paper form. But [most] people in the United States are going to receive what’s called the Internet First mailing, which is that the Census Bureau will … mail you and invite you to participate in the census through the website,” said Fitzsimmons. This invitation includes a unique twelve digit identifier. Individuals who do not have this identifier can still complete the census online by filling in their household address. Individuals who are experiencing homelessness can identify their geographic location (city, state, zip code, or location description such as intersections and park names) as an alternative to providing an address.

One major change is that households will no longer be able to request a paper form, but the census can also be completed over the phone. “The Census Bureau is encouraging a majority of the country to take part online or over the phone to help reduce the burden of administration,” said Fitzsimmons.

The invitation will be addressed to the residence address, not an individual person, since all household members should be included in the census. The online form must be completed in a single session and include the information of every household member. Fitzsimmons advises against using the browser’s forward or back buttons, recommending instead the online form’s forward or previous options, to avoid having to re-enter information. 

There are advantages to completing the census online. The physical form has limited space for household members to list their demographic information, requiring follow-up from the Census Bureau to collect the full demographic information of households with more than six members. Fitzsimmons recommended large households either respond online or by telephone. 

Households completing the form online will be able to choose between thirteen languages, with additional guides in fifty-nine languages. The mailed form “will offer very brief instructions to complete the census in either English or English and Spanish,” and will also include a language assistance list for thirteen languages with toll-free phone numbers.

“But even if you never receive a mailer, or if you don’t have your own home—if you’re crashing on someone’s couch, you’re living in a car, whatever the case may be—anybody can still fill out the census form for their whole household online or over the phone,” Fitzsimmons said. 

To complete the Census online, visit

The Weekly’s reporting on the 2020 Census is supported by a grant from the McCormick Foundation, administered by the Chicago Independent Media Alliance.

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Jocelyn Vega is a contributing editor to the Weekly. She last wrote about a fundraiser for Black and brown farmers collectives.

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