Congress

Census Bureau defends ‘efficiency’ changes ahead of 2020 count

Avoids details on gathering citizenship data through administrative records

Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham, prepares to testify during his 2018 Senate confirmation hearing (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call )

Census officials on Monday defended plans for next year’s count that they said would make it the “most efficient ever," as Democrats pressed the bureau to do more to ensure hard-to-count populations are not overlooked.

The latest salvo from Democrats came from members of the Illinois congressional delegation, led by Richard J. Durbin, the Senate minority whip, and Sen. Tammy Duckworth, along with the rest of the state’s Democratic representatives. In a letter, they urged greater investment in outreach like Questionnaire Assistance Centers to avoid missing minorities, children, rural residents and the urban poor.

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“While we are pleased to see the addition of online and phone response platforms, as well as translation assistance available in more than 50 non-English languages, the importance of physical presence and follow-up cannot be overstated,” the group wrote.

At a media event Monday to detail a slimmed-down address verification system, Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham responded, saying "We’ll consider carefully any recommendations they make and will respond to those recommendations."

Dillingham has clashed with members of Congress this year about closing the centers and scaling back in-person census efforts. During a House Oversight and Reform hearing last month, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Florida, pressed Dillingham on the decision not to open brick-and-mortar Questionnaire Assistance Centers, pointing out that spending bills had mandated the bureau open those offices.

Decisions like closing the questionnaire assistance centers were made by career Census Bureau staff to better allocate resources, Dillingham told Wasserman Schultz.

The 2020 census will be the first to rely on online responses, along with dozens of other changes ranging from computerized address verification to roaming census outreach meant to make the census more efficient, Dillingham has said. The agency’s operational plan for the 2020 census says “it is anticipated that online self-response will be the primary mode of data collection, with a goal of 45 percent of households responding online.”

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Citizenship questions

The Census Bureau continued to avoid specifics about implementing President Donald Trump’s executive order for it to gather citizenship data through administrative records, issued after he dropped his pursuit of a citizenship question on the census last month.

The head of the Census Bureau public information office, Michael Cook, said Monday that the Census Bureau does not comment on litigation. Alabama filed a suit last year challenging the constitutionality of apportioning seats by total population rather than citizenship.

“The Census Bureau will fulfill its constitutional mandate to conduct a complete and accurate 2020 census, and enumerate all persons living in the U.S.," Cook said.

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An Alabama federal judge rejected the government’s request to dismiss the case earlier this year, finding that the state had established standing to bring the suit.

Last week, the Census Bureau gave a similar answer to Rep. Ayanna S. Pressley, D-Massachusetts, after she asked for a written answer on plans for the citizenship data.

Asked Monday about concerns by immigrants stemming from Trump's push this year to add a citizenship question, Dillingham said that the bureau will continue to emphasize the "safety" of responding to the census.

“There are many trusted voices in the community, there are many reasons that people will want to respond,” Dillingham said. “We think there will be a great amount of support.”

Congress will have one more chance to weigh in on the census process — in forthcoming spending legislation this fall. Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, with Durbin, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-New York, and other Democrats, wrote to Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross invoking the coming spending talks, and warning them against sharing citizenship data as part of redistricting.

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