Internal Census document: Shorter count risks ‘serious errors’

The shortened schedule for the 2020 headcount threatens the integrity of data, according to the leaked Census Bureau document

A sign encouraging people to complete the census stands in a Main Street planter in Roswell, N.M. last month. According to an internal Census Bureau document, the fast-tracked timeline threatens the accuracy of the headcount and the time needed afterward to review the information. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
A sign encouraging people to complete the census stands in a Main Street planter in Roswell, N.M. last month. According to an internal Census Bureau document, the fast-tracked timeline threatens the accuracy of the headcount and the time needed afterward to review the information. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted September 2, 2020 at 6:55pm

Census Bureau officials concluded the shortened timeframe for the 2020 count could lead to “serious errors” in the data used to apportion congressional seats and more, according to an internal agency document released Wednesday by congressional Democrats. 

The document, which appears to be part of an Aug. 3 presentation marked “not for public distribution,” outlines several risks presented by the current plan to end in-person counting on Sept. 30. Previously, administration officials said they were confident the agency could complete the count in the abbreviated timeframe and deliver accurate data used to apportion the House and guide $1.5 trillion in federal spending each year.

However, the Census Bureau document released by House Oversight and Reform Committee said the fast-tracked timeline not only threatens the accuracy of the headcount but the time needed afterward to review the information, which “creates risk for serious errors not being discovered in the data — thereby significantly decreasing data quality.”

Committee Chairwoman Carolyn B. Maloney, D-N.Y., cited the internal agency document in a letter to congressional leaders urging them to pass legislation to extend the current mandated Dec. 31 deadline to finish operations until the end of April 2021. The House of Representatives passed a deadline extension as part of a coronavirus relief bill earlier this year, and bipartisan members of both chambers have called for the Senate to act on the extension.

“The Census Bureau professionals said that’s not enough time to get an accurate count,” Maloney told reporters during a press conference Wednesday. “This is an outrage, this is wrong.”

Maloney said her committee would hold a hearing about the concerns raised by the document. She and other Democrats argued the administration has interfered with agency operations to politically benefit from census results.

The Office of Inspector General for the Commerce Department, which oversees the Census Bureau, has raised concerns that the shortened timeframe could lead to undercounts of populations like college students.

Last week, the Government Accountability Office raised similar concerns to the internal Census Bureau document about the accuracy of the decennial count. In a report, the GAO said the shortened timeframe could mean more people answer incorrectly and the agency may have less time to correct responses.

The GAO noted that response rates have varied widely, from more than 72 percent in Minnesota to less than 20 percent in parts of states as varied as New York and South Dakota.

Census Bureau planning documents say the agency conducts several steps to complete its count, like combing through data to remove duplicate responses. It also uses administrative records like tax returns and other federal records to add in people who did not respond on their own.

In a Fox Business op-ed last month, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross insisted the shortened time frame has not hurt census efforts. Ross said the agency has made several advances in the use of administrative records, including identifying vacant units more quickly, that will help the count.

However, that op-ed was published after the document’s presentation, which said despite advancements made during this census, the shortened timetable still presented risks to the census’ accuracy.

A representative for the Census Bureau could not be immediately reached Wednesday for comment.

Rep. James R. Comer, R-Ky., the ranking member on the Oversight and Reform Comitttee, defended the administration’s push for a shorter census timeline, saying it has made “data-driven” decisions.

“Contrary to the Democrats’ constant political theater, Americans can have confidence that the Census will be accurate and completed on time,” Comer said in a statement Wednesday.

Former Census Bureau Director John Thompson, however, said the document, if it reflects the agency’s current plans, “paints a bleak picture” of the census process. Thompson, who lead the agency until 2017, expressed concern that the agency has removed safeguards meant to keep results accurate.

“I hope the bureau is not being overly optimistic about how they are going to complete nonresponse followup. It seems they are being very optimistic that everything is going to be fine,” Thompson said. “The changes they are making are definitely going to reduce the quality of the census and introduce inaccuracies.”

Concerns about the accuracy of the shortened count have also fueled the more than half a dozen federal lawsuits against the administration. Two of those have been fast-tracked and are now before three-judge panels.

Earlier this year, amid delays created by the pandemic, the Census Bureau requested an extension through the end of next April to finish its work, but Congress failed to act on the request and administration officials eventually stopped pursuing the effort.  Last month, the Census Bureau announced it would end in-person counting efforts on Sept. 30 to meet the current Dec. 31 deadline.