Census Bureau did not order shortening 2020 US resident count, report says

The decision to shorten by a month the 2020 head count of every U.S. resident was not made by the U.S. Census Bureau, and some agency officials suspect it was made by the White House or the Department of Commerce, according to a report from the bureau's watchdog agency.

The report by the Office of Inspector General did not identify who made the decision to shorten the 2020 census from the end of October to the end of September, but it said bureau officials confirm it was not made by them.

The accelerated schedule “increases the risks to the accuracy of the 2020 Census," the Inspector General report said. “This was the consensus view of the senior Bureau officials we interviewed."

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Because of the pandemic, the Census Bureau got support last spring from the Department of Commerce, which oversees the agency, to push back its deadline from winding down the head count from the end of July to the end of October. The extra time was contingent on Congress extending the deadline for the Census Bureau turning in figures used to determine how many congressional seats each state gets from Dec. 31 to the end of next April, according to the report.

“This shift would allow the Bureau to follow the planned operations it had spent a decade developing," the Inspector General's report said.

At some point in July, though, support for the extensions from the Trump administration and Congress were called into doubt. There was pressure from the Commerce Department to speed up operations, legislation in Congress to extend the deadlines stalled and President Donald Trump issued a directive trying to exclude people in the country illegally from the numbers used in redrawing congressional districts, according to the Inspector General.

At least two Census Bureau officials interviewed by the Office of Inspector General believe the president's order changed the administration's support for extending the deadlines, the report said.

A three-judge panel in New York blocked Trump's directive earlier this month, saying it was unlawful. The Trump administration is planning an appeal to the Supreme Court.

On July 29, a senior Department of Commerce official told bureau officials to put together options for meeting the Dec. 31 deadline, and officials at the statistical agency concluded that it would have to end the head count at the end of September in order to have enough time to process the apportionment data.

Federal judges on opposite coasts this week are hearing arguments in two lawsuits seeking to extend the 2020 census into October. The lawsuits filed by civil rights groups, cities, counties and citizens say minority communities, including Latinos, Asian Americans, and non-U.S. citizens, stand to be undercounted if the census ends a month early.

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A hearing in Maryland was held Monday, and a hearing in San Jose, California, will take place Tuesday.

During a 2 1/2-hour virtual hearing, a three-judge panel in Maryland focused their questions to attorneys on what would be considered an inaccurate count. They didn't say when they would rule on a request from the plaintiffs for either a temporary restraining order or an injunction that would stop the count from finishing at the end of the month.

The judge in the San Jose case earlier this month issued a temporary restraining order prohibiting the Census Bureau from winding down 2020 census operations for the time being. Plaintiffs in the San Jose case allege the decision to shorten the schedule was made to accommodate Trump's directive.

Government attorneys have argued that the census must finish by the end of September to meet the Dec. 31 deadline for turning over apportionment numbers.

So far, more than 95% of households had been counted. The Census Bureau has a goal of reaching 99% of households.

The bureau doesn't have a plan if it doesn't reach that 99% goal, the Inspector General report said, and the sped-up data processing plan after field operations end “poses a myriad of risks to accuracy and completeness."