Trump Succeeds at Ending U.S. Census Early, Ensuring Costly Undercounts

Interview with Beth Lynk, director of the Census Counts campaign, conducted by Melinda Tuhus

The 2020 Census has faced unprecedented challenges, due to both political interference and the COVID-19 pandemic. That has resulted in a situation where communities that were undercounted in the past are at risk of being further undercounted this year. After the Trump administration attempted to add a citizenship question to the census, much time and money was invested in a campaign that succeeded in stopping it. Then in response to the pandemic, Census Bureau staff had to shift their training, door-to-door outreach and in-person events to a digital platform. The every-decade census count is used to allocate seats in Congress and distribute roughly $1.5 trillion in federal funds for health care, education, highway construction and nutrition programs.

In late summer, the administration undermined the Census Bureau’s own experts by trying to shorten the census timeline, disrupting the work that faith leaders, civil rights advocates, city officials and civic leaders were doing to ensure everyone was counted. Trump officials decreed the census counting would end on Sept. 30. By the time court challenges were ruled on by the Supreme Court, the final date was Oct. 15, two weeks short of Oct. 31, the historically mandated end date.

Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Beth Lynk, director of the Census Counts campaign at the Leadership Conference Education Fund. Here, she describes the continuing effort to make the census as inclusive as possible and the role that Congress could play in this process.

BETH LYNK: It was really challenging to get folks to participate when you don’t have a specific date you’re telling people they have a chance to respond by. And that was very concerning for all of us. We responded to that by encouraging folks to respond as soon as possible. I’m incredibly fearful that there are people out there who, had they had more time or more certainty about when they could participate in the census, they would have, and that we’re missing their participation on the 2020 Census because of that.

But I think it’s also important for folks to know, and we’re really focused on the fact that the census is not over. So right now the Census Bureau is moving into an important stage of the census, where they’re tabulating, processing and doing quality checks on the data they’ve collected. Unfortunately, due to the Trump administration’s effort to shortchange the process and shorten the timeline, the Census Bureau is faced with an impossible timeline to complete that really onerous and intensive tabulation and processing work to ensure we have accurate census data. We know the risk for the communities that have been historically missed in the census — marginalized communities — is even greater if the data processing and tabulation phases are shortened. We’re calling on Congress to ensure that as the Census Bureau exports, the administration and the Commerce Department asked back in April when we were faced with this pandemic and it was clear that the census was going to be very impacted by COVID-19, had asked for more time for that processing and that data tabulation and that they have until April to transmit the data to Congress. We’re asking that Congress step in, take action, extend the timeline, and not force the Census Bureau to have to cut corners and shortchange the very communities that have been left out decade after decade but also ensure that those folks have an opportunity to be represented accurately and completely in the 2020 Census.

MELINDA TUHUS: But the Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case from the administration that’s still trying to exclude the undocumented. Can you explain what’s happening with that?

BETH LYNK: The Supreme Court stopped the Trump administration’s attempt to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census, an effort we know would have been really detrimental to participation across the board and would have incited even more fear of participation in the census. After that, we saw multiple efforts on the part of the administration to do what that citizens question would have done, and essentially do what this administration has wanted to do, which is exclude people who are undocumented from being counted in the totals used for apportionment. There’s going to be a hearing before the Supreme Court on that issue — there are 11 total cases, but one of them is going to be before the Supreme Court at the end of November, on Nov. 30, challenging that.

MELINDA TUHUS: Beth Lynk, it seems that Republicans aren’t interested in having a complete count, so will it take flipping the Senate to Democrats and/or also putting a Democrat in the White House to pursue what we might call census justice?

BETH LYNK: The reality is that an inaccurate, incomplete census hurts every state in the country, and in particular, many of the states that have been hit by natural disasters, displacement and other extenuating factors, are run by Republicans, so it’s not overstating the case that this would be devastating for everyone, regardless of political leaning or stripes. We have actually, in fact, seen bicameral, bipartisan legislation introduced into both the House and the Senate that would extend the statutory deadlines for apportionment and redistricting as the Census Bureau and the administration asked for back in April.

The census, by ensuring that the data is acceptably accurate, as it can skew political power, representation, but also the distribution of $1.5 trillion in federal funding every year, and those resources are going to go toward education, health care, infrastructure — the very resources communities need to rebuild from this global health pandemic, from this virus that’s ravaging communities across the country. So, we’re calling on Congress to step in. If they can’t take action before the election, there’s certainly time in the lame duck to make it happen, but it’s critically important and urgent so that the Census Bureau has time to process and tabulate the data.

Right now, the Census Bureau is faced with an impossible deadline of reporting census data to Congress and the White House by the end of December. The Census Bureau has already said in the form of court filings and other statements that have been released publicly, we’ve also heard from the Government Accountability Office and the Commerce Department’s Inspector General’s office that it will impossible for them to produce the data by the end of December, so we need that statutory relief to come from Congress. They can, they must act.

For more information, visit Census Counts at censuscounts.org.

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