Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham announced Monday evening that the Bureau was officially speeding up its plans for the 2020 census, putting it on a counting timeline that the Bureau’s own experts said earlier this year was impossible due to the pandemic.
The Bureau now says that it will be aim to deliver the data for apportionment — the process of deciding how many House seats each state gets — by the end of the year, which was the original deadline before the coronavirus outbreak hit.
In April, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who oversees the decennial census, requested that Congress extend that deadline — as well as the March 31, 2021 deadline for redistricting data — by four months due to the pandemic.
But the administration walked away from that plan, apparently around the same time that President Trump was unveiling a directive last month that undocumented immigrants be excluded from the apportionment data. Postponing the delivery of the data by four months would have let a Biden administration, if Trump loses in November, reverse the policy.
The policy stands to reduce the political power of immigrant-rich states while boosting the electoral advantages of whiter parts of the country.
It is still possible — and, legal scholars believe, likely — that Trump’s directive will be blocked in court, given the Constitution’s mandate that the “whole number of persons” be included in the apportionment count.
However, the move to rush the count will have major consequences beyond whether Trump’s apportionment policy is implemented.
Experts in census operations, including former directors of the Bureau, have warned that refusing to give the Bureau the extra time to finish the count will pose grave risks to its accuracy.
“In my sense, the chance of having a census accurate enough to use is unclear,” former Census Director Kenneth Prewitt, who led the Bureau between 1998 and 2001, said at a congressional hearing last week.
Monday’s formal announcement confirmed an NPR report last week that Bureau staff had been told internally that field operations to collect data from households were being truncated by several weeks. After reworking its count timeline for the pandemic, the Bureau has said such operations would continue through the end of October. Now they’re being wound down at the end of September. Releasing apportionment data by the end of the year means that the next step in the process, which includes efforts to review the quality of the data collected, will also be condensed.
Dillingham’s statement said that both the in-person data collection and the self-response period will end on Sept. 30. The Bureau would then “streamline” the processing operations that happen after the data collection, Dillingham said, while the agency “prioritize[d] apportionment counts to meet the statutory deadline.”
Hard to count communities — including immigrant populations, urban parts of the country, and rural regions — will bear the negative impact of those operations being short circuited. If they go undercounted, that means those populations will be losing out on both political representation and federal funding that is allocated on the basis of census data.
Dillingham’s statement claimed that, “[u]nder this plan, the Census Bureau intends to meet a similar level of household responses as collected in prior censuses, including outreach to hard-to-count communities.”
The announcement brought swift pushback, including by local census advocates.
New York City Census Director Julie Menin called the move a “disgusting power grab.”
“From day one, it has been abundantly clear that Donald Trump is going to try everything possible to stop New Yorkers from filling out the census, and now, amid a global pandemic that’s severely impacted outreach, they are straight-up trying to steal it,” she said in a statement. “The Trump Administration’s cynical political ploy is designed with one thing in mind: rewarding their political friends and harming cities like New York.”