Census delays could push apportionment to Biden administration

Internal census documents reveal errors involving more than 900,000 records nationwide

House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., during a hearing in August.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call pool photo)
House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., during a hearing in August. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call pool photo)
Posted December 2, 2020 at 6:19pm

Internal documents released Wednesday by the House Oversight and Reform Committee show the Census Bureau has run into far more problems than publicly disclosed in its rush to finish tabulating results from the 2020 count, possibly resulting in delays that would let the incoming Biden administration have final control over results.

The documents identify errors involving more than 900,000 records across the country. The problems vary from calculating ages correctly to missing or double counting thousands of people. Agency officials have also identified problems in tens of thousands of records in states on the verge of gaining or losing congressional seats, such as Texas and California.

Correcting those problems will require several delays, according to the documents the committee released Wednesday as part of three sets of internal Census presentation slides dated mid-to-late November.

Those delays would push out the release of the apportionment data by nearly a month, to Jan. 23, the third day of the Biden administration. It also would push a separate report, purporting to exclude undocumented immigrants from apportionment figures, until Feb. 1.

The documents set up a potential showdown between professional staff at the Census Bureau, who have said they will only produce accurate information, and Trump officials who want to control the census in order to exclude undocumented immigrants from apportionment.

Oversight Chairwoman Carolyn B. Maloney, D-N.Y., released the leaked internal documents in advance of a Thursday hearing on various problems the Census Bureau has experienced.

In a letter Wednesday to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who oversees the agency, Maloney accused him of hiding problems with the census. 

“Your failure to cooperate with the Committee’s investigation appears to be part of a dangerous pattern of obstruction with the Census,” she wrote.

By refusing to release the documents, the administration also appears to be hiding information from the courts, Maloney said. She cited Supreme Court arguments from Monday, when acting Solicitor General Jeffrey Wall told the justices the situation surrounding census data processing was “fluid,” arguments that occurred after the internal documents identified specific problems with the count.

[Justices wary of wading into census immigration dispute]

A senior Democratic aide said Maloney may consider a subpoena for Ross and holding another hearing for his testimony if he does not turn over documents tied to the delays.

In a statement issued late Wednesday night, the Census Bureau said the timeline for finishing census data processing "remains in flux" and that the data anomalies were not unusual. The agency said it would deliver the data as close to the legal deadline as possible.

"No shortcuts are being taken when it comes to patching the software to correct these anomalies, or others that may be discovered as data processing continues, and resources are being added to post-data collection processing to ensure timely and accurate data is delivered for the Census Bureau's important mission," the Census Bureau statement said.

Earlier this year, President Donald Trump signed a memorandum seeking to exclude undocumented immigrants from congressional apportionment. Following that, the administration abandoned its plan to extend the census deadline into April, preferring to end the count by the existing end-of-year statutory deadline.

These delays could upset those plans. Unless agency officials deliver results before Jan. 20, President-elect Joe Biden would have control over their distribution. Earlier this week, Biden released a statement attributing Trump’s effort to “the partisan politics of intimidation and xenophobia” and said the Census Bureau should have enough time to complete its work.

In November, Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham acknowledged the agency had run into problems with data processing. Previously, agency officials said it would deliver results “as close as possible” to the end-of-year deadline.

“During post-collection processing, certain processing anomalies have been discovered,” Dillingham said in a statement at the time. “These types of processing anomalies have occurred in past censuses. I am directing the Census Bureau to utilize all resources available to resolve this as expeditiously as possible. As it has been all along, our goal remains an accurate and statistically sound Census.”

In addition to apportionment, census results are used to divvy up more than $1.5 trillion in federal spending annually as well as for thousands of private business decisions.

The American Statistical Association and the agency’s own scientific advisory committee have recommended the agency receive an additional 120-day deadline extension to process the data. If Congress does not give an extension, the ASA called on the Census Bureau to publish a set of accuracy benchmarks so the public can gauge the usefulness of the census.

The House has passed legislation extending the deadline for apportionment results twice this year, but ran into roadblocks in the Senate amid White House opposition. A handful of Senate Republicans have come out in favor of the extension, including Montana’s Steve Daines and Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, but Senate leadership has not moved on the proposal.