The Saga of the 2020 Census Extension: What Happened, and Where Are We Now?

By PAA Web posted 08-19-2020 09:23


There has been a dizzying amount of information about the 2020 Census in the news lately--new political appointees at the Census Bureau, a presidential memorandum excluding undocumented immigrants from apportionment, changes to key field operations, and contradictory Administration positions on whether to extend or not extend the statutory reporting deadlines for apportionment and redistricting data. Believe it or not, these events are closely intertwined.  Census

On April 13, 2020, in a joint statement, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and Census Director Steven Dillingham announced that, “[i]n order to ensure the completeness and accuracy of the 2020 Census, the Census Bureau is seeking statutory relief from Congress of 120 additional calendar days to deliver final apportionment counts. Under this plan, the Census Bureau would extend the window for field data collection and self-response to October 31, 2020, which will allow for apportionment counts to be delivered to the President by April 30, 2021, and redistricting data to be delivered to the states no later than July 31, 2021.” President Trump publicly supported the request, telling reporters, “The Census Bureau recently made the decision to temporarily suspend its field operations data collection activities to help stop the spread. In addition, while millions of Americans continue to complete their questionnaire online, the Census Bureau has asked for a 120 [day] extension. I don’t know that you even have to ask them. This is called an act of god...I don’t think 120 days is nearly enough." (quoted in The Hill, 4/13/20)

But only three months later, without explanation, the administration abandoned its request to push back the statutory reporting deadlines, forcing the Census Bureau to rush through remaining counting operations (specifically the Nonresponse Follow-up Operation) and curtail vital quality check and data processing activities, even though the national self-response rate at the start of the door knocking operation was the lowest ever, and the number of homes to visit in person the highest ever.

What changed?

The administration’s change of heart appears to be driven by the president’s July 21, 2020, Memorandum, setting forth a “policy” to exclude undocumented immigrants from census numbers used for congressional apportionment, and directing the Commerce Secretary to provide information, when reporting the state populations to him under the Census Act that would allow him to carry out this goal. (The Census Director testified before the House Oversight and Reform Committee on July 29 that he had no advance notice of the Memorandum.) But most legal experts believe the new policy, which already is the subject of numerous lawsuits, is unconstitutional. In fact, until now, both Republican and Democratic Justice Departments have concluded that the U.S. Constitution requires a census of all persons living in the United States, regardless of citizenship and legal status, for the purpose of congressional apportionment. The Administration, however, is determined to proceed with its plan to have the Commerce Secretary deliver apportionment data to the president by the current December 31 deadline, along with estimates of the undocumented immigrant population by state. This timeline, in turn, would allow President Trump to calculate the congressional apportionment after excluding the estimated number of undocumented immigrants, even if he is not the victor in the November election. To help achieve its goals, since June, the Administration has installed three new political appointees in newly-created, high level positions at the Census Bureau, who appear to be working to implement the president’s memorandum and revised 2020 Census operational plan to complete the NRFU and self-response operations prematurely and deliver apportionment data by December 31. 

On August 6, 2020, The New York Times reported on a leaked Census Bureau memo that suggests the Department of Commerce expects the Census Bureau to provide figures for several different sub-categories of undocumented immigrants and perhaps the number of people imputed in the Census, as well. The fear is that the Commerce Department will examine these data and select the combination of groups that provides the biggest advantage for Republicans in reapportionment. In the past, it has always been the Census Bureau that determined the most accurate population count of the states, counting all persons living in the U.S. on Census Day, regardless of citizenship or immigration status. Turning this process over to political appointees Department of Commerce and to the president is unprecedented in the modern era.


Stakeholder Response

In May, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a comprehensive COVID relief package, H.R. 6800, the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act, which includes language to extend the 2020 Census statutory reporting deadlines, as the Administration requested in April. The U.S. Senate Republican majority did not include a similar provision in its counter COVID relief proposal, the Healthcare, Economic Assistance, Liability, And Schools (HEALS) Act.

On August 6, The Census Project sent a letter to leaders in the U.S. Senate, which was signed by over 900 national, state, and local organizations, including the Population Association of America (PAA), urging them to include language in the next COVID relief package that would extend the statutory reporting deadlines for the 2020 Census by four months and require the Census Bureau to continue NRFU and self-response operations at least through October 31, as expert career Bureau staff had recommended. On August 11, 87 organizations representing the business community sent a similar letter to Senate leaders. Allies in the U.S. Senate, led by Senators Schatz (D-HI) and Murkowski (R-AK), organized a bipartisan letter, signed by 48 members of the U.S. Senate, to Senate Majority Leader McConnell and Minority Leader Schumer, urging the Senate to approve an extension of the 2020 Census statutory deadlines as part of that chamber’s next COVID relief package. Senator Daines (R-MT) sent his own letter to Senate Majority Leader McConnell communicating a similar message. PAA issued an action alert, to which over 1,000 members responded, resulting in over 2,000 messages being sent to U.S. Senators in support of extending both 2020 Census operations and reporting deadlines.

Without congressional action, the Administration will be allowed to pursue its plan to rush completion of the 2020 Census — including curtailing quality assurance and data processing activities — and deliver flawed apportionment data by the end of the year. Census stakeholders, working with supporters in Congress, are exploring every possible legislative and legal option to give the Census Bureau the time its career staff says they need to complete a high-quality, accurate census. Time is of the essence if the Census Bureau is to reverse course once again and pursue its original pandemic-adjusted operational plan and data delivery schedule.

-- Mary Jo Hoeksema, PAA Director of Government Affairs, and Terri Ann Lowenthal, Census Consultant