New Delays In Final Stage Of Census Could Foil Trump’s Plan To Rig It

WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 11: U.S. President Donald Trump makes a statement on the census with Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross (L) in the Rose Garden of the White House on July 11, 2019 in Washington, DC. President Tr... WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 11: U.S. President Donald Trump makes a statement on the census with Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross (L) in the Rose Garden of the White House on July 11, 2019 in Washington, DC. President Trump, who had previously pushed to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census, announced that he would direct the Commerce Department to collect that data in other ways. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images) MORE LESS
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The Census Bureau has identified issues in the data from the 2020 decennial census that will take an additional 20 days or so for it to fix, and thus delay the release of survey’s apportionment data until after President Trump leaves office, TPM has learned.

According to a person inside the Census Bureau, the additional time it will take to reprocess the data in question has pushed back the target date for release of the state population counts until Jan. 26 – Feb. 6.

That would mean President-elect Joe Biden will be in the White House when the Census Bureau delivers to him the numbers for him to transmit to Congress for the purposes of determining how many House seats each state will get for the next decade.

President Trump had been seeking to exclude undocumented immigrants from that count, with a policy that several lower courts have deemed illegal in rulings Trump is hoping the Supreme Court will overturn. Excluding undocumented immigrants from that count would decrease the House seats given to immigrant-rich states like California, and increase the representation for whiter, more Republican parts of the country.

The issues that the Census Bureau has identified in the data are standard for any census, the source told TPM, and it is routine for the Census Bureau to have to do this kind of reprocessing.

Shortly after this story was published, Census Director Steve Dillingham confirmed the “anomalies” in a statement to TPM that made no explicit mention of how fixing them will impact the timeline for releasing the data.

“During post-collection processing, certain processing anomalies have been discovered. These types of processing anomalies have occurred in past censuses. I am directing the Census Bureau to utilize all resources available to resolve this as expeditiously as possible. As it has been all along, our goal remains an accurate and statistically sound Census,” Dillingham said.

Word of the delay began circulating on Wednesday night among former Census officials and other experts who keep a close eye on the survey’s operations. TPM was unable to independently confirm exactly how far up the food chain within the Trump administration the news of the delay had traveled on Wednesday. It is also not clear whether the White House will try to get in the way of the Bureau being given the extra time that will ensure the quality of the count.

According to a New York Times report that was published soon after TPM first reported the delays, Commerce Department officials were briefed on the delays by Census Bureau experts on Wednesday afternoon, and Secretary Wilbur Ross himself was made aware of those developments on Wednesday evening.

Usually, the Census Bureau has about five months for this final phase of processing and quality checks on the data, and these hiccups are not a big deal. However, in an apparent gambit to assure that Trump was still in office to oversee apportionment, the Census Bureau has been put on an extremely condensed timeline. It had been trying to complete this phase in just two and half months.

The delay of the release of the data would be a devastating blow to Trump’s years-long quest to hijack the 2020 census to further his political agenda. His attempt to add a citizenship question to the survey was blocked by the Supreme Court in 2019. Afterwards, he announced that the Census Bureau would use existing government records to assemble the citizenship data instead, while making clear that the data would be used to fundamentally change how political power is doled out in the country.

In July 2020 he announced the directive to exclude undocumented immigrants for the apportionment count. At the time of the announcement, the Census Bureau had been planning to take four extra months — with the aim of releasing the apportionment data by late April 2021 — to finish the survey, due to delays caused by the pandemic.

The administration reversed on those plans, and instead put the Census Bureau on an expedited timeline in which it would have less than three months to do the quality checks and processing.

At a teleconference with reporters last month, Census Bureau officials insisted that under the expedited timeline, they would not be cutting corners. They said that improvements in computer power — coupled with a shift to a 24/7 including holidays schedule (as opposed to 9-5 work week) — was helping them make up the lost time. They acknowledged, however, that surprises or issues in the processing could throw them off their schedule for delivering the apportionment data by the Dec. 31 deadline. By the time of the press call, the Census Bureau was already hedging on its ability to meet that Dec. 31 deadline — even though that’s what the Justice Department pointed to as its rationale for rushing the census when the expedited plan was challenged in court.

“It is our plan right now that if we need more time to fix a problem that comes up that would impact the quality of the data, we’re taking it,” Al Fontenot, the associate director of decennial census programs, told reporters on the October call, as he referenced the hedging the Census Bureau had already done about working to meet the Dec. 31 deadline.

“That provides us with the flexibility if we encounter unexpected challenges to deal with them and handle them before we actually present the documents,” Fontenot said.

Fontenot said that those decisions would be made by the career experts, and the Census Bureau had not “established a hard stop.”

“We are trying to maintain the flexibility to get the job done in a quality way,” Fontenot said in October.

Former Census Director John Thompson told TPM he would be “concerned” about the quality of the data if the Bureau was not given the 20 extra days it says it needs to finish the population counts.

Thompson — who referenced his time as a career Bureau official during the processing phase of the 2000 census  — noted that 21 days for expert review and computer remediation had been cut from the 2020 census schedule when the Bureau was forced to adopt the expedited timeline.

He said that Bureau would not be asking for more time now unless it had given a “serious” look at every other possibility.

“I would be very worried if the data were produced in advance of the [late January/early February] schedule,” Thompson said.

Update: This story was updated to include additional comment from current and former Census officials, as well as corroborating reporting from the New York Times.

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