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On October 13, the US Supreme Court granted an appeal from the Trump administration to halt Census2020 on Oct 31, in a shocking reversal that will end the count sooner than expected. An earlier injunction by a California District court had allowed an extension because of disruptions caused by the pandemic.
The decision left states and census advocates scrambling to meet an impossible December 31 deadline to review, process, tabulate and report census reapportionment and redistricting data.
This means that the Census Bureau has just six weeks – not six months – before delivering apportionment counts to the President.
What Will Happen
What’s likely to happen is that the final enumeration will be inaccurate. Historically hard to count populations -minorities, people of color, and marginalized communities – will be undercounted in the final tabulation.
That, in turn, will impact the distribution of resources – funding for roads, schools, hospitals, food assistance and health services – that vulnerable communities rely on. The consequences for marginalized communities are dire. The pandemic has already restricted their use of safety net resources, but an undercount will threaten their access to those resources for the next decade.
Pushback against the new ruling has been swift.
Justice Sotomayor, dissenting from the grant of stay, wrote that “The harms caused by rushing this year’s census count are irreparable. And respondents will suffer their lasting impact for at least the next 10 years.”
Civil rights advocates say it blatantly disrupts a census count that has been ten years in the making. They denounced the Trump Administration’s countless efforts to sabotage the census for political gain, calling the ruling a dismaying decision that “undermines American livelihoods as well as our democratic system.”
Census advocates echoed this view at a briefing hosted by The Leadership Conference on Civil & Human Rights and Ethnic Media Services on October 20.
“Everyone in America regardless of political affiliation or ethnicity, should be deeply troubled by the President’s attempt to undermine and misrepresent data from the 2020 Census,” said John Yang, President & Executive Director, Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAJC).
Marc Morial, President and CEO of the National Urban League which spearheaded litigation against the Trump directives, called the Supreme Court a ‘willing co-conspirator’ that has “aided, abetted, facilitated” the administration’s effort to politically interfere with the census….and to cheat the American people of their constitutional right to representation.”
The Constitution is clear. It mandates that ‘all persons’ – not all citizens – must be included in the decennial census and in the apportionment count. Advocates at the briefing called Trump’s executive order an attempt to amend the US Constitution.
Impact of the Ruling
The ruling underscores historic attempts to erase undercounted communities from the census and ongoing efforts by the Administration to keep non-citizens off the decennial.
Up next is a Supreme Court hearing of a Trump directive that seeks to exclude non-citizens from the congressional apportionment. Earlier, a ruling by federal judges in New York found the executive order unlawful.
These legal challenges undermine the democratic process on which our country was founded, said panelists. A flawed count will affect apportionment – redistricting legislative districts based on newest population counts and redistributing seats to represent those districts in the House of Representatives. In undercounted areas, marginalized communities risk losing fair representation in government.
What’s at stake is the constitutional intent of the count.
How Census2020 played out
Census officials have planned Census2020 for ten years. When COVID19 hit, they outlined a timeline to ensure they would reach an accurate count during the pandemic.
The Bureau spent over $6.3 billion on a campaign to get the count out. It bolstered partnerships with community organizations and civil rights groups at national and local levels to encourage participation in the census.
“The Administration’s refusal to let Census Bureau experts determine the best schedule for completing the count and reporting results really created enormous chaos and confusion in the field,” said Vanita Gupta, President and CEO of The Leadership Conference.
Census2020 is one of the largest decennials, but the run up to its final count has been buffeted by natural disasters and an unrelenting pandemic, making it the most difficult of enumerations.
“We have worked so hard to push our communities to participate in the census and tell them how it will benefit their lives,” said Yang, so rushing to transmit apportionment data to the President by December 31, completely undermines those efforts.
Minority communities will take the fall
Experts agreed that rushing the census will shortchange minority communities.
Historically, self-response rates from communities of color nationwide tend to be lower than non-Hispanic white and US self-response rates. Latinos, tribal areas, Blacks and swathes of Asian residents need more targeted outreach – “more door knocking enumeration” – which requires extra time.
Panelists called a Census Bureau statement that it had topped 99% completion rates ‘a myth’. That rate only refers to households on the address list, but do not indicate if all householders were included or completed the census forms. “Do not be fooled,” warned Morial, “if there was fake news, this is it!”
The perils of an undercount include overcrowding in schools and hospitals, and congestion on roads. It will put communities in a tough spot that will be hard to recover from. Hastily tabulated data will harm the nation, but that risk falls disproportionately on communities of color.
“Make no mistake about it. There has never been an accurate count of Latinos in a decennial,” said Arturo Vargas, CEO of NALEO, referring to historical interference that has denied Latino participation in the census, whether it was asking Latino immigrants to boycott the census, or barring their inclusion in it. “The odds are consistently against a census that fully includes all (almost 60 million) Latinos.”
Morial pointed out that “The Black population count was already in jeopardy from the start,” because African American communities have not even reached the national self-response rate of 68%.
In Indian country, that rate is 25% below the national average, said Kevin Allis, Leader of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), arguing that his community is invisible to the rest of the country. In 2010, Indian country suffered an undercount twice the national average.
Allis also pointed out that the federal government has a treaty and trust responsibility owed to tribal nations (covering infrastructure, health and education and economic development), in exchange for millions of acres that tribal nations ceded to the US for settlement. Chronic underfunding has created disparities in Indian country. A census that falls short, will further decimate the funding and representation promised in those treaties, warned Allis.
It’s not over yet
“It would be a mistake for anyone in the public or the media to think that the Census is over,” said Gupta. What is over is the data collection process from a 150 million housing units. In the next phase, the Bureau will process raw data to produce a count that accurately reflects every US community. Data will determine the distribution of real resources in neighborhoods.
It’s a massive and complex undertaking that needs time, says Census Bureau experts (the Gov. Accountability Office and the Commerce Department’s Inspector General).
Rushing the census will force the Bureau to cut corners and compress vital quality checks that could skew data and create errors, advised Gupta. “The ramifications will last decades.”
The data processing phase is crucial to ‘fill in the blanks’ added Vargas. Checks and remediation are needed to ensure that forms are complete, all household members included, and to fix erroneous and duplicate responses. It requires meaningful consultation with stakeholders to deal with disclosure avoidance systems and make sure nobody is left behind.
Flawed data will lead to flawed decisions that harm everyone, warned Allis.
It takes time to integrate quality indicators that measure and translate census data into accurate apportionment counts. If you erase people from the census, the domino effect at play will see federal programs and fair elections start to fall.
Political interference has reduced a six month process to two, and that will undermine the integrity of the count, so we need to “excise politics from the process,” urged Morial.
The Bottom Line
Without an extension, millions of people will be left out of the count. That includes people in rural and tribal lands, people of color, people with low incomes and people experiencing homelessness.
“In a lot of ways this has always been the Trump administration’s goal, from the failed citizenship question, to Trump’s unconstitutional memo to erase undocumented immigrants from the count. The administration has been trying over and over again to dictate who counts in this country,” stated Gupta.
Congress Must Act to Salvage the Census
There isn’t a clear roadmap ahead if the Census Bureau is forced to produce an inaccurate count.
Advocates at the briefing urged Congress to take immediate steps to reset the course of the census and stave off damage that could last the next ten years. They suggested the public put pressure on congressional delegations to free the census of political and partisan interference going forward.
The Leadership Conference has endorsed a bipartisan bill to save the census, and asked Congress to push back the reporting deadlines by 120 days each – extending the reapportionment deadline from December 31 to April 1, 2021, and the redistricting deadline from April 1 to July 1, 2021.
“Congress has to set a clear path forward” Gupta added, because it is their constitutional responsibility to protect the integrity and accuracy of census data.
“Look. The decennial census sets a standard for data quality that must be preserved,” said Yang. “It should be something the US Census Bureau achieves without interference.”
Meera Kymal is a contributing editor at India Currents