EXCLUSIVE: Ross Commits To Protocols That Make It Harder For Trump To Mess With Census

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross takes part in a Cabinet meeting at the White House on August 16, 2018. (Photo credit: MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)
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October 16, 2020 4:16 p.m.

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said in a statement to TPM that when the Census Bureau gives the President the 2020 census data for congressional apportionment, it will make that data public at the same time.

The statement commits the Trump administration to following a decades-long tradition of simultaneously releasing and transmitting the numbers, encouraging public confidence that the data will not be secretly manipulated by the White House.

For months, former Census officials and other census observers have been on the lookout for signals that the Trump administration might deviate from these long-established protocols. On Thursday, TPM sent the Commerce Department and the Census Bureau a detailed list of questions about its plans for the apportionment process.

“I have no further comment on the ongoing litigation, but we will release this Census data publicly, and in keeping with past practice, will do so simultaneously with its delivery to the President,” Ross said in a response provided to TPM on Friday afternoon.

After a follow up from TPM, the Commerce Department confirmed that Ross was referring to the total population counts, the apportionment calculations that they produce, and, in the event the Supreme Court gives a green light, the immigration data that Trump is requesting so that he can exclude undocumented immigrants from apportionment process.

A lower court has declared the exclusion of undocumented immigrants from the apportionment count illegal. Not long after TPM received the initial statement from Ross, the Supreme Court announced it would hear arguments in that case on a timetable that could let it resolve the dispute before early January.

The gambit, if okayed by the Supreme Court, would allow Trump to diminish political representation for immigrant-rich states, while boosting the political power of whiter, Republican-leaning parts of the country. It has been blocked by a lower court.

Even amid the legal uncertainty, the Census Bureau has been moving forward on assembling data on undocumented immigrants. Recent developments in the various census-related court cases have suggested that the Bureau is having trouble collecting reliable data on undocumented immigrants beyond those that can be linked to ICE detention records, which would be a relatively small number of people.

In the meantime, census advocates have been clamoring for full transparency on what data the Census Bureau will be providing the White House if and when the White House seeks to execute this plan. There are concerns that the Bureau will be pressured to provide data that do not meet the Bureau’s normal quality standards due to a White House desire to maximize how much it can screw over blue states.

Seeing what data the White House will be working with will help the public understand whether those concerns are warranted — or if there are any other tactics the White House could in theory try to use to manipulate the count for the benefit of Republicans.

“Whatever is released from the Bureau to the Commerce Department to the White House, those data products need to be released to the American people,” Denice Ross — a senior fellow with the National Conference on Citizenship, who worked on census issues in post-Katrina New Orleans — told TPM.

A separate statement from the Census Bureau to TPM signaled that the Bureau is also not 100 percent sure it can meet the statutory Dec. 31 deadline for delivering the data to the president.

“The Census Bureau is working hard to process the data in order to deliver complete and accurate state population counts as close to the December 31, 2020, statutory deadline as possible,” the statement said.

That deadline was a flashpoint in a recent court battle over the Trump administration’s moves to expedite the census count. At the beginning of the pandemic, it requested that Congress extend that deadlines by four months given the ways the COVID-19 outbreak was disrupting the survey. But over the summer, the White House appeared to reverse itself on that request — a move many believe indicated a desire to implement the immigrant apportionment policy before Inauguration Day, in case Trump lost the election.

The apportionment policy and the reversal on the count timeline are both examples of what has been a pattern for this administration: an approach to the census that seems to prioritize a political agenda over the count’s accuracy.

The administration’s caginess on how the apportionment process will work was most recently documented in a New York Times report this week. The mixed messages identified by the Times, as well as other public and private chatter coming out of the administration had fueled fears that the White House will be able further manipulate the numbers in a way not known to the public.

For the last 50 years, the Commerce Secretary and the Census director have held a press conference to announce both the population totals and the Bureau’s apportionment calculations on the same day those numbers are sent to the President. That has helped the public maintain confidence that the White House wasn’t then tampering with numbers before sending them to Congress.

Justice Department filings and other chatter coming out of the administration have suggested that this time, the White House may run the apportionment calculations instead of the Bureau.

Not everyone was convinced by Ross’ commitment, and there are other examples where the White House has reversed on official commitments about the census.

“The Commerce Department is being sketchy, limiting its comments to following past practices.They are not indicating if they will add new twists to the process or state population totals for reapportionment. I wouldn’t be surprised if they do something completely new and different a few days or weeks later,” Jeff Wice, a redistricting lawyer and adjunct professor at New York Law School, told TPM.

This article has been updated.

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