Counting all the people in the United States is always a daunting task for the Census Bureau. But if there has ever been a more difficult year than most to keep track of, it seems 2020 will be.
However, the constitution requires that the census be done every 10 years – even in the midst of a pandemic, a bitter presidential election, and a fight for the future of the Supreme Court.
That intense mix of factors played a role this week when the court allowed the Trump administration to halt the census before its scheduled end date. The Census Bureau said Wednesday that people can fill out the census form online by 6 a.m. East Coast time on Friday and that paper replies must be postmarked by Thursday. The census can also be completed by phone through Thursday, when the Census Bureau staff also stop efforts to reach households that have not responded.
What happened to the census this week?
The Supreme Court on Tuesday allowed the Trump administration to stop the 2020 census count before its scheduled end, effectively reducing the number of U.S. citizens, which occurs every 10 years.
The court’s order technically only allows the census to be stopped temporarily while the Trump administration battles with a host of other groups in a lower court over whether the census can be stopped early. In practice, however, the decision will almost certainly end the census early, as the census cannot simply be restarted and little time remains until its current deadline of October.
Supreme Court justices did not give reasons for ordering, which is typical when the court responds to emergency requests. They simply said the count could be stopped while the callings progressed.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor disagreed, saying that “the harm associated with an inaccurate census is preventable and unbearable.”
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The order was a huge victory for the Trump administration, which had been dismissed by multiple courts as it sought to end the census early. It was a bitter defeat for state and local governments and interest groups that had sued to keep the population going.
Why is the census important?
The census is the most thorough listing of US citizens, their demographics, and information about where they live. This information will be used to allocate political power and trillions of dollars in government funds over the next decade. It also serves as the basis for how congressional and local electoral districts are drawn.
Some scholars and advocates fear that ending the census early could result in White House officials instead of Census Bureau experts using population numbers to determine representation in the House of Representatives and in state and local governments. The census is intended to be an impartial, data-driven exercise.
Most experts said an abbreviated census would only worsen the existing census workers who were hardest to reach, including those in ethnic minority groups, poor people, and young people.
How did we get here?
The court’s decision on Tuesday was just the final step in a complex saga.
The litigation has centered on whether the Department of Commerce, which oversees the Census Bureau, followed federal law when it set a September 30 deadline. The subtext of the case, however, was always whether a short count could be accurate enough to serve as a basis for determining political representation and the distribution of state funds.
The deadline for taking the census has been postponed several times this past spring, initially due to the coronavirus pandemic that has almost completely closed many census operations – with Census Bureau staff often going door-to-door to count hard-to-reach people.
But in August, Trade Secretary Wilbur L. Ross Jr. ordered the September 31 deadline to be postponed to September 30, stating the move was necessary in order to provide Mr. Trump with preliminary information within the deadline requested by law . Mr Ross’s move was made over objections from career counting experts who argued that it could completely undermine the count’s accuracy.
What happens next?
The plaintiffs’ attorneys in the lawsuit, which was originally filed to prevent Mr Ross from compressing the length of the census, said they would do their best to ensure the Census Bureau was not coerced during the months that Accuracy checks further shorten the amount of time that population data is processed and verified.
And experts have warned that the Supreme Court’s order to suspend early could not only affect the accuracy of the census, but also undermine public confidence in it.
Terri Ann Lowenthal, a longtime census expert and counselor to several groups pushing for an accurate record, argued that the clutter created by the government’s handling of the census “invariably undermines public confidence in the census results becomes”.
The administration “could do the right thing and have these operations run in an organized manner for the next two weeks, or it could continue to push for urgent results, accuracy and quality to be condemned,” she said.
Kristen Clarke, president of the Civil Rights Advocacy Committee, which represents many of the sued parties, said the decision would “do irreversible damage to efforts to ensure a fair and accurate census.”
How is the count going?
Despite many obstacles, the Census Bureau has made persistent efforts to fill some of the gaps in the list. It has brought more than 16,000 census takers from places where the census is complete and sent them to states where the response lags, particularly in the deep south.
In order to meet the earlier deadline imposed by Mr Ross, the Census Bureau has scaled back some verification procedures and allowed census participants to accept less reliable information – for example, a neighbor’s word about who lives in an uncounted house.
This enabled the office to report on Saturday that it made up 99.9 percent of all households in the country. This so-called completion rate is new; More conservative measures have been taken in previous censuses.
Experts say the 99.9 percent completion estimate could mask gaping holes in the count’s cover. While the office did not provide details of which households were covered by the measure, these were not households that actually filled out census forms. Rather, it seems to include those who were in some way removed from the list of uncounted households, but imprecisely.
Are there any other census battles this year?
In this highly unusual year, the dispute over how long to keep the census is not the only battle over the census.
In July, the Trump administration announced it would attempt to exclude people who entered the country illegally from the population it had sent to Congress to determine how many seats each state will get in the House of Representatives. If those in the country weren’t counted illegally, millions of people would be excluded from the calculations and, most likely, several seats would be relocated from Democratic states to Republican states.
The constitution requires congressional districts to “count the total number of people in each state” using information from the census, and a federal court ruled last month that the administration’s move was illegal. The Supreme Court was able to appeal to the administration in December.