Whistleblower Docs Warn Of Risk Of ‘Serious Errors’ With Rushed 2020 Census

SAN ANSELMO, CALIFORNIA - MARCH 19: The U.S. Census logo appears on census materials received in the mail with an invitation to fill out census information online on March 19, 2020 in San Anselmo, California. The U.S... SAN ANSELMO, CALIFORNIA - MARCH 19: The U.S. Census logo appears on census materials received in the mail with an invitation to fill out census information online on March 19, 2020 in San Anselmo, California. The U.S. Census Bureau announced that it has suspended census field operations for the next two weeks over concerns of the census workers and their public interactions amid the global coronavirus pandemic. (Photo Illustration by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images) MORE LESS
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September 2, 2020 3:59 p.m.

Internal Census Bureau documents a whistleblower provided to the House Oversight Committee warn that the Trump administration’s plan to rush the 2020 count will “reduce accuracy,” “negatively” impact the redistricting data the count produces, and creates “risk for serious errors not being discovered in the data.”

The documents, released Wednesday, provide new details on how the Census Bureau is planning to speed through not just the process of collecting the decennial census data, but the post-collection quality checks that happen afterwards.

Earlier this year the bureau had said that it needed Congress to give it four extra months to release apportionment data and redistricting data from the 2020 count, because of the delays caused by the pandemic.

It reversed course in recent weeks, however, in a move widely believed to be related to President Trump’s legally dubious request that the apportionment numbers — which determine the number of House seats each state gets — exclude undocumented immigrants.

If Congress granted the four-month extensions the bureau initially had been seeking, then a Joe Biden administration could reverse the new apportionment policy, which is also being challenged in court.

The new documents — which are an internal slide show and excerpts of committee interviews of career bureau officials — suggest the administration is putting a priority on rushing the apportionment numbers out while Trump is guaranteed to still be in office, to the risk of the accuracy of all the other data the decennial count is supposed to produce.

The slideshow stated that the processing work that will begin in October, after the counting operations end, is being limited to what is required to produce the apportionment numbers.

“Delivery of redistricting data products will be negatively impacted under this
revised plan and we are determining full impacts,” the slideshow said.

The House Oversight Committee released the documents along with an urgent plea that Congress give the bureau more time to finish the count — an idea that has bipartisan support in the Senate and has already been approved the House.

The slideshow was from a presentation that was given Aug. 3 to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who oversees the census. Bureau officials told the committee that they received a phone call from one of Ross’ top aides on July 29 requesting that they create the plan for expediting the count so that the apportionment numbers could be delivered at the end of the year.

Neither the Census Bureau nor the Commerce Department immediately responded to TPM’s request for comment. But outside redistricting experts and demographers were alarmed by what was described in the new documents.

This really is a political attack on the accuracy of the census,” Andrew Beveridge, a sociologist and demographics expert at CUNY, told TPM.

“Wow, all the fears are coming true,” Kimball Brace, a redistricting expert, said in an email responding to the documents.

The recent announcement that the Census Bureau will stop its data collection activities — including both self response and the operations aimed at counting those who don’t respond to the survey on their own — a month early, at the end of the September, was already causing deep anxiety among the researchers, businesses, map drawers and other entities that rely on the data.  More than $1 trillion in federal funding is allocated based on census data, as is certain state and local government funding — in addition to the role the data play in determining political representation.

After it finishes collecting the data, bureau usually spends four to five months on post-collection quality checks. Under the new plan, it  will now have just two and half months. This “highly compressed” schedule, in cutting back or eliminating certain operations, “will reduce accuracy,” the presentation warned.

“A compressed review period creates risk for serious errors not being discovered in the data—thereby significantly decreasing data quality,” the presentation said.

Among the activities being cut back, according to the presentation, are so-called re-interviews, which is how the Census Bureau goes back to check the accuracy of the responses it received.

The House committee was briefed by Census Deputy Director Ron Jarmin, Associate Director for Decennial Programs Al Fontenot, and Associate Director for Field Operations Tim Olson last week. According to the summary released Wednesday, Commerce Department officials intervened repeatedly to prevent those officials from giving full answers when asked about the risks of the expedited schedule.

Even as the Census officials “expressed optimism,” according to the committee summary, about their ability to comply with the new schedule, they “made clear that they were forced to dramatically truncate their plans because the statutory deadlines have not yet been extended.”

Olson told the committee that “it was too early to cry undercount,” according to the new documents, but acknowledged that “if Congress were to give a legislative relief, that’s a different conversation.”

“They haven’t done that. So I have a mandate to get an accurate count by September 30th, and we’re going to do everything under the sun to get there,” he said.

The House passed a COVID-19 bill earlier this year that did grant those extensions. But when the Senate GOP released its latest coronavirus proposal, the extensions were notably absent. The White House asked Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) to instead appropriate an extra $1 billion for the bureau’s counting operation, according to the New York Times.

Olson recounted to the committee how the Commerce Department and the White House Office of Management Budget had been on board with the original request for the four-month extensions. Noting that the House approved the extensions, Olson said that  “through the grapevine, I was told that there was support in the Senate for that,” according to the summary.

Read the slide show and the committee’s summary below:

 

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