New Census Worry: An Expedited Count Could Mean an Inaccurate One

WASHINGTON — As the 2020 census struggles to find its footing amid the coronavirus outbreak and public reluctance to give the government personal data, officials have a new worry: The Trump administration and Senate Republicans appear to be signaling that they want the census finished well ahead of schedule, pandemic or not.

With almost 40 percent of the nation’s households still uncounted, including the hardest-to-reach populations that are disproportionately poor, people of color and young, the Trump administration took the Census Bureau by surprise last week. It asked the Senate Appropriations Committee to set aside $448 million in the next coronavirus relief package for a “timely” completion of the census.

The request did not define what “timely” meant, and legislation released on Monday said only that the money would be used for nationwide census operations and data processing. But it comes as census workers and former officials say the White House and the Commerce Department, which oversees the Census Bureau, are asking how the bureau can compress its schedule to wrap up the count of households earlier than expected — perhaps by the end of September. The aim, they say, may be to speed up the delivery of key data for political reapportionment to the president by the end of December.

The administration has yet to announce a compressed schedule and may not find a way to do so. But the prospect already has alarmed an array of experts, who warned in recent days that an expedited census risks a deeply flawed count of the nation’s population. The census is constitutionally required to count all residents of the country every 10 years.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty, but one thing is absolutely sure: There will be egregious undercounts if the Census Bureau has to produce this data by December,” said Robert Santos, the vice president of the Urban Institute and the incoming president of the American Statistical Association.

Some, including former Census Bureau directors, raised the prospect that the final totals could be so skewed that a future Congress might order the bureau to do further work on the 2020 population data, or even consider another census in five years, which federal law allows but which has never been conducted nationwide.

The numbers are enormously important. They are used to reapportion all 435 House seats and thousands of state and local districts, as well as divvy up trillions of dollars in federal grants and aid.

At issue is how fast, and how precisely, the Census Bureau will track down and count the 60 million households that have not filled out census forms.

Slightly more than six in 10 households have completed forms. The remainder are the very hardest to count. To reach them, the bureau has planned to deploy up to 500,000 census takers, each with an iPhone that can securely relay census data to the bureau’s computers.

In 2010, census takers worked from May to August to count hard-to-find households. This spring, with the start of that count delayed by the pandemic, the bureau said it was pushing back the start of that work to August, ending on Oct. 31.

With White House approval, the bureau also asked Congress for a four-month extension — to April 2021 — of the Dec. 31 statutory deadline for delivering to the president the population totals required to reapportion the House of Representatives.

But that plan now appears to be in flux. Census Bureau workers have been asked whether that Oct. 31 deadline for collecting data can be moved to September, giving them six or seven weeks to finish a count that was supposed to take 10 weeks.

At the same time, the administration’s commitment to extending the delivery of reapportionment statistics beyond the statutory Dec. 31 deadline also appears in doubt.

In Congress, the House has approved the four-month delay. The Senate has not. Asked on Saturday whether Senator Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, still supports extending the deadline, a spokesman for the senator said in an email: “Don’t think I’m going to be able to help you out on this.”

The White House declined to address questions about its census plans. Responding to a reporter’s questions, the Census Bureau issued a statement on Monday that neither confirmed nor denied an effort to hasten the completion of the count and the delivery of reapportionment figures.

“The Census Bureau is working toward the plan to complete field data collection by October 31,” it said. It then added that its staff would “continue to evaluate and plan for all contingencies, including the impact of delivering statutorily required data products at the current legislative deadlines” — a reference to the Dec. 31 date to produce reapportionment figures.

In fact, top Census Bureau officials already have said that meeting that deadline is impossible.

“We have passed the point where we could even meet the current legislative requirement of December 31. We can’t do that anymore,” the census official leading field operations for the count, Tim Olson, told a Native American organization during a webinar in May.

And in a webinar this month for groups with a stake in census results, the associate director of the census, Albert E. Fontenot Jr., said, “we are past the window of being able to get those counts” by year’s end.

The new concerns come atop a growing record of political interference in census decisions by the Trump administration.

The Supreme Court last year, in a 5-4 vote, rejected the administration’s effort to add a citizenship question to the census that experts said would surely depress the count of immigrants and minorities, documented and otherwise.

On White House orders, the Census Bureau last month created two top-level positions and filled them with political appointees from outside, a remarkable move in an agency renowned for its nonpartisan culture.

Some critics say Mr. Trump’s order last week to exclude undocumented immigrants from state-by-state population totals used for reapportionment totals explains the administration’s apparent desire to speed up census work.

The order, which is already being challenged in court, is widely viewed as unconstitutional by legal scholars. But for the order to have any chance of succeeding, they say, the census totals used for reapportionment must be delivered to Mr. Trump while he is still in office — as he almost certainly will be on Dec. 31, but may well not be in April 2021.

“I think it’s entirely about that,” Thomas A. Saenz, the president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said on Monday. “He wants to exclude undocumented immigrants because he believes it will shift representation away from blue states to red states. In the end, it’s entirely about trying to stem Latino political power.”

Others say Mr. Trump’s order, regardless of whether it is upheld, could have an impact on representation by making noncitizens worry that their answers on a census survey could be used against them.

“They clearly have an agenda for not counting undocumented immigrants in the apportionment count,” said Vanita Gupta, the president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a coalition of more than 200 advocacy groups. “I think the administration knows their order isn’t going to be constitutional. Maybe through fear of it, they’re trying to get to the same place.”

Experts said a rush to wrap up the census would force the bureau into shortcuts that would make population totals significantly less accurate. Months of post-census analysis and accuracy checks also would be at risk were population totals required by December.

“It won’t be finished unless they can quickly ramp up something, like using administrative records” instead of census takers to count households, said Kenneth Prewitt, a Columbia University public affairs professor who led the Census Bureau during the 2000 census. “Otherwise, you end up with a census that’s 10 percent uncounted, or 12 percent.”

Mr. Prewitt and John Thompson, a career Census Bureau official who directed the agency from 2013 to 2017, said the bureau also could be forced to expand its use of a statistical method called imputation, in which an algorithm makes an educated guess about who lives in a household by looking at who lives nearby.

Past censuses have relied on imputation for a tiny fraction of households — about 1 percent, in most cases — that could not be otherwise counted. But “it could get a lot bigger, maybe 10 or 15 percent in some areas of the country, if they have to cut it short,” Mr. Thompson said.

If past censuses are any indication, the Census Bureau will state clearly where it believes inaccuracies lie, and how large they might be. After the count, the bureau conducts a massive accuracy check, called a post-enumeration survey, in which experts revisit a sample of households to see whether reported data was correct.

But while the bureau will say how inaccurate its numbers are, it will not, in all likelihood, say whether it believes they can be relied on.

“What it means to fail to have a census has never been tested,” said Justin Levitt, an expert on the topic at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. “How bad it has to be before it’s not a census anymore is something we have yet to decide.”

Should it come to that, he said, that judgment would probably be hashed out in Congress — and later in the courts.

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