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Republicans Signal They're Willing To Cut Census Counting Short

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., announced a coronavirus relief proposal on Monday that did not include any provisions to extend legal deadlines for the 2020 census as the Census Bureau has requested.
Sarah Silbiger
Bloomberg via Getty Images
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., announced a coronavirus relief proposal on Monday that did not include any provisions to extend legal deadlines for the 2020 census as the Census Bureau has requested.

Republicans in Congress are signaling that the Census Bureau cannot take the extra time it has said it needs to count every person living in the U.S. amid the coronavirus pandemic — even if that risks leaving some residents out of the 2020 census.

Rushing to deliver new state-population counts to the president by Dec. 31, and more detailed data to the states by March 31, 2021, as required by current federal law, could risk severe inaccuracies in the once-a-decade count, especially among people of color, immigrants, rural residents and other historically undercounted groups.

With 95 days until the Census Bureau plans to stop tallying the country's residents at the end of October, roughly 4 out of 10 households nationwide have yet to be included in the constitutionally mandated count that is used to redistribute congressional seats, Electoral College votes and federal funding among the states.

Democrats in both the Senate and the House of Representatives have introduced legislation, including the House Democrats' latest coronavirus relief bill, that would grant four-month extensions to the legal deadlines in response to requests in April by the Census Bureau and the Commerce Department, which oversees the bureau.

But in their latest proposal for coronavirus relief aid as released on Monday, congressional Republicans offer no extra time for the bureau, only $448 million morefor field operations and data processing.

The White House press office did not respond to NPR's question about whether the White House supports the Census Bureau's request to extend the census deadlines by four months. The press office also did not respond to an inquiry about whether the White House had asked for additional funding for the bureau in the latest coronavirus relief package to conduct a "timely census," as reported by The New York Times last week.

A Trump administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, did tell NPR that a "timely census" simply means that it's delivered within the statutory timeline.

Top Census Bureau officials, however, have already publicly declared that meeting current legal deadlines is no longer possible.

In response to a question by NPR at a news briefing on July 8, the bureau's associate director for the 2020 census, Al Fontenot, confirmed: "We are past the window of being able to get those counts by those dates at this point."

Fontenot's comments echoed comments in May by Tim Olson, the associate director for field operations, who said that the bureau has "passed the point where we could even meet the current legislative requirement of Dec. 31."

Many census advocates are alarmed that Republicans have not yet proposed census deadline extensions — a request that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who was appointed by President Trump, first made to Congress in April during a phone call that included no Census Bureau officials.

The absence of a proposal in the Republican relief package suggests the Trump administration may have abandoned its own request for these extensions, says Terri Ann Lowenthal, a former staff director of the House oversight subcommittee for the census who now consults on census issues.

"If that is the case, then the administration is throwing the Census Bureau under the bus by forcing the agency to rush remaining census operations," Lowenthal says in an email. "Continued disruptions to the census plan will only diminish the likelihood of an accurate result."

The Commerce Department and the office of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who announced the GOP's relief package on the Senate floor Monday, did not immediately respond to NPR's questions.

It is unclear whether the bureau has to cut short the extra three months it has been relying on to send out door-knockers to try to make sure historically undercounted groups are included in the census by Oct. 31 amid coronavirus outbreaks around the country.

In an updated statement posted on its website on Monday, the bureau said it's still "working toward the plan to complete field data collection" by the end of October.

The bureau's statement also noted that a new funding request made by the White House's Office of Management and Budget would give it "schedule flexibility" for completing the count during the pandemic, including attempting to wrap up field data collection "as quickly, and safely as possible."

The bureau's chief spokesperson, Michael Cook, told NPR in April that it was the agency's "assessment" that continuing to count through the end of October means the bureau cannot meet the current legal reporting deadlines for census results.

Without extra time to process and prepare the census results to make up for the pandemic-induced delays, the bureau has limited options to try to address undercounts and incomplete information gathered about certain communities. That is especially true for areas where a higher number of homes may be difficult for the Census Bureau to reach without sending door-knockers multiple times.

"If there is a large undercount of segments of our population," explains Nancy Potok, a former deputy director at the Census Bureau who recently retired as the chief statistician of the U.S., "there is only so much that the Census Bureau can do to use accepted statistical methods to account for households that are clearly present and occupied but nothing is known directly about the occupants."

"The Census Bureau has been clear that it needs the additional time to complete a high-quality census," Potok adds. "There is no reason not to extend the deadline unless you are trying to embed an undercount of certain groups of people in the census counts."

The continued lack of clarity in the census timeline will make it more difficult to try to ensure a complete census count, says Jeri Green, who advises the National Urban League on census issues and previously served at the bureau as a senior adviser for civic engagement.

"The uncertainty in deadlines demonstrates a lack of respect and appreciation for the hardworking rank-and-file Census employees who may have to tabulate the data in an unrealistic, compressed timeframe and for our outreach efforts as the National Urban League and other organizations implore communities of color to self-respond during an unknown time period," Green says in a statement.

If Trump loses the presidential election to former Vice President Joe Biden, sticking to the Dec. 31 deadline would ensure that the census apportionment count is delivered to Trump while he is still in office.

That is the same count that Trump is seeking, with little authority, to change by excluding unauthorized immigrants, a move that is facing multiple lawsuits from challengers who are asking federal courts to declare it unconstitutional.

Since an April announcement, the bureau has been operating under modified plans for the 2020 census that include continuing to count unresponsive households three months past the original end date of July 31.

The final months of counting are focused in large part on historically undercounted groups, whose members are less likely to participate on their own.

On Monday, the bureau announced it's starting to send emails to try to boost census participation among more than 20 million households in areas with a self-response rate lower than 50%. Emails will be sent from 2020census@subscriptions.census.gov.

All of the uncertainty has forced many states to revisit state constitutions and seek court rulings to come up with alternative plans for redrawing voting districts after the 2020 census.

Lawmakers in New Jersey — one of two states, along with Virginia, that have state legislative elections set to take place next year — are mulling over a proposed amendment to the state's constitution that, if approved by voters, would delay the redrawing of voting maps, which would then not go into effect until 2023.

This month, the California Supreme Court released a ruling granting at least four-month extensions to deadlines for finalizing redistricting maps, with provisions in case there is any "additional federal delay" given the "dynamic nature of the global pandemic."

NPR White House editor Roberta Rampton contributed to this report.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Hansi Lo Wang (he/him) is a national correspondent for NPR reporting on the people, power and money behind the U.S. census.