Experts worry about errors if census schedule is sped up

The sun sets beyond downtown Kansas City, Mo., Saturday, June 27, 2020. Thousands of census takers are about to begin the most labor-intensive part of America’s once-a-decade headcount. The first visits will be focused on six locations — West Virginia, Idaho, Maine, Kansas City, New Orleans and the Oklahoma City area. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
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After asking for coronavirus-related deadline extensions in April, the Trump administration now appears to be abandoning that request by asking Congress for extra funding to wrap up the 2020 census “as quickly, and safely as possible” in a move that could help ensure the number-crunching for redrawing congressional districts takes place on President Donald Trump’s watch.

Census Bureau officials had warned as recently as early July that it was already too late to have the numbers ready without an extension. And outside experts predicted Tuesday that speeding up the timetable would lead to an inaccurate head count that misses people in hard-to-count minority communities.

“It would be like giving an expectant mother in the early stages of pregnancy a lot of money to have the baby in 4.5 months,” said John Thompson, a former Census Bureau director in the Obama administration.

The Census Bureau is in the middle of the 2020 census, and some of the bureau’s 500,000 door-knockers started heading out this month to households that haven’t yet answered the questionnaire.

With the new coronavirus disrupting census operations in April, the Trump administration asked Congress to extend the deadlines required for the U.S. Census Bureau to turn in the head count data used for redrawing congressional district and legislative districts. The Census Bureau also postponed finishing field operations for the 2020 census from the end of July to the end of October.

The Democratic-controlled House agreed to the extensions as part of coronavirus-relief legislation, but the Republican-controlled Senate has yet to do so. Senate Republicans on Monday instead proposed an additional $448 million in funding for the 2020 census in its coronavirus-relief bill.

“This funding would allow for additional hiring, staffing resources, and replenished contingency funding to provide schedule flexibility as the Census Bureau conducts its largest field operation, nonresponse followup,” the Census Bureau said Monday on its website. “This flexibility is critical to helping the Census Bureau operate in the midst of unprecedented public health crisis, including trying to wrap up field data collection as quickly, and safely as possible, while ensuring a complete and accurate count. ”

Historically, the Census Bureau is required to turn over numbers for apportionment, the process of divvying up congressional seats, by Dec. 31, and the numbers used for redrawing legislative districts by March 30. The deadline extensions would push back the apportionment deadline to April 30 and the redistricting deadline for state and local districts to July 31.

If the deadline extension for the apportionment numbers is granted by Congress, there’s a chance the final months of the data-crunching would take place under a new administration if presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden defeats Trump, a Republican, in the November election.

Wary of what they see as Trump’s attempts to politicize the 2020 census, House Democrats say Senate Republicans should approve the request for deadline extensions.

“Otherwise, American taxpayers would be forced to pay for the most expensive and potentially least accurate census in our nation’s history,” said U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney, a Democrat from New York who chairs the House Committee on Oversight and Reform.

Earlier this month, House Democrats asked U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to withdraw two appointees from top positions at the U.S. Census Bureau, claiming they represented the latest effort by the Trump administration to politicize the 2020 census.

Then last week, Trump issued a memorandum seeking to exclude people in the country illegally from being included during the process for redrawing congressional districts. Civil rights group have filed multiple lawsuits challenging the memorandum as unconstitutional and an attempt to limit the power of Latinos and immigrants of color. Two more lawsuits were filed Tuesday, including one by California Attorney General Xavier Becerra and several California cities, which said California stood to lose a congressional seat if Trump’s order succeeds.

“The timing of the executive memorandum issued last week coupled with what now appears to be abandonment of the request to push back the reporting deadlines clearly suggests that the White House wants to ensure that the president receives the numbers for apportionment while he is still in office. It’s hard to draw any other conclusions,” said Terri Ann Lowenthal, a census expert who worked on census issues as a congressional aide.

More than 62% of households had responded to the census as of Sunday, leaving about 55 million households that will require visits by census takers. The Census Bureau said Monday that it will start sending out emails to residents in neighborhoods with low response rates, encouraging them to fill out the questionnaire

Talking to reporters at the beginning of the month, Al Fontenot, the bureau’s associate director for decennial programs, said the bureau was “past the window of being able to get those counts” by the end of the year.

Kenneth Prewitt, who served as a Census Bureau director in the Clinton administration, said an accelerated census in the middle of a pandemic “can only be explained politically.”

“I believe the odds of being able to produce the census between now and the end of the year is extremely low. COVID is in charge. The Census Bureau is not in charge,” Prewitt said. “To finish the census by the end of the year, COVID has got to go away, and it’s not.”