Census Bureau on inaugural clock after missing deadline

The agency finds itself under pressure from all sides as it prepares apportionment data

The Census Bureau continues to go through data collected from the 2020 census.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
The Census Bureau continues to go through data collected from the 2020 census. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted January 5, 2021 at 11:30am

After blowing past its statutory deadline, the Census Bureau is being squeezed between internal commitments to an accurate census and the outgoing Trump administration’s desire to reshape the apportionment process. 

It’s the first time the agency missed its Dec. 31 deadline to deliver the data, used to distribute House seats, since Congress created the deadline in 1976. But after the coronavirus pandemic and Trump administration decisions disrupted the count, the Census Bureau still needs more time to finish its work, said outside experts, including former agency director Ken Prewitt.

[Northeast, Midwest would lose seats in new Census Bureau estimate]

“How do we climb out of this and minimize the political weaponization of the census?” Prewitt said last week during a call with reporters. “That’s what Biden has got to do with the new administration — sort of put this back in the hands of the scientists and the people who know how to clean up the data, however long it takes.”

In a Monday filing in one of multiple census lawsuits, the agency said it would not deliver results before a planned deposition Tuesday. Internal documents released last month by House Democrats put the timeline past Jan. 20, which would place the release under President-elect Joe Biden, who has criticized President Donald Trump’s effort to change apportionment.

Those internal documents said the agency identified problems with close to 1 million records, which could result in missing or double-counting tens of thousands of people. Fixing those problems, the documents said, could push the delivery of apportionment data beyond Trump’s term.

The Census Bureau last week said that “projected dates are fluid” but it would deliver results “as close to the statutory deadline as possible.”

Both the American Statistical Association and the Census Bureau’s own scientific advisory board recommended the agency receive another three-month extension to its work. Failing that, they both requested that the agency release more information about how it conducted the count at a granular level.

Alison Plyer, who chairs the Census Scientific Advisory Committee, told reporters on a call last week that “these anomalies don’t automatically go away at noon on January 20,” and the agency should still have more time to iron them out.

Plyer, other experts and the agency itself have said the anomalies are not unusual — they happen every census as the agency checks for duplicate responses and counts people it missed through administrative records or other measures. However, the agency originally planned for at least five months of data work, even after the pandemic led to several months of operational delays. 

Trump signed a memorandum seeking to exclude undocumented immigrants in July. Shortly after that, his administration dropped efforts to extend the census count so Trump could still control apportionment calculations regardless of who won the November general election. 

That meant field operations ended in mid-October and the agency got less than three months to tabulate the results. To meet that new timetable, the agency cut back on key measures meant to enhance the accuracy of the count. 

The inspector general for the Commerce Department, which oversees the Census Bureau, released a report last week that noted the agency skimped on secondary interviews, calling into question the accuracy of more than 500,000 cases. The agency uses those interviews to ensure that enumerators did not make mistakes or take shortcuts, but it cut them short because of the truncated schedule.

Former Census Bureau Director John Thompson said the agency will have to be forthcoming about how it fixed the issues it faced in order to produce results so quickly if it does so before Biden’s inauguration.

“If they release the data well in advance of the timeline they’d requested, then it would behoove them to talk about what were the anomalies, what did they do, how did they fix them, because there’s going to be great concerns about those anomalies,” Thompson told reporters last week.