Census Officials Say They Can’t Meet Trump’s Deadline for Population Count

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In a blow to the Trump administration’s efforts to strip unauthorized immigrants from census totals used for reapportionment, Census Bureau officials have concluded that they cannot produce the state population totals required to reallocate seats in the House of Representatives until after President Trump leaves office in January.

The president said in July that he planned to remove unauthorized immigrants from the count for the first time in history, leaving an older and whiter population as the basis for divvying up House seats, a shift that would be likely to increase the number of House seats held by Republicans over the next decade.

But on Wednesday, according to three bureau officials, the Census Bureau told the Commerce Department that a growing number of snags in the massive data-processing operation that generates population totals had delayed the completion of population calculations at least until Jan. 26, and perhaps to mid-February. Those officials spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals from the Trump administration.

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, whose department oversees the bureau, was informed of the holdup on Wednesday evening, those people and others said. The Commerce Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The director of the Census Bureau, Steven Dillingham, acknowledged a delay in a statement issued on Thursday but did not explicitly rule out delivering reapportionment totals before Mr. Trump’s term ends.

“During post-collection processing, certain processing anomalies have been discovered,” the statement said. “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.”

It is not clear whether Mr. Dillingham’s directive will force the bureau to overcome the obstacles the processing delays pose to Mr. Trump’s plan to upend the centuries-old formula for allotting seats in the House.

Under law, the White House must send a state-by-state census tally to the House of Representatives next year that will be used to reallocate House seats among the states. On Mr. Trump’s order, the Census Bureau is attempting to compile a separate state-by-state tally of unauthorized immigrants so that their numbers can be subtracted from official census results before they are dispatched to the House.

That cannot happen — and Mr. Trump’s plan will become moot — if the census totals are not completed before Mr. Trump leaves office on Jan. 20.

It is possible that the administration could still order the bureau to produce the state-by-state population data before the president’s term ends, regardless of data-processing problems that affect its accuracy. But experts on census issues said it was unclear whether the bureau’s career staff — data scientists and other experts who have devoted their careers to an accurate head count — would carry out such an order or instead resign en masse.

If the Trump administration nonetheless produces a state-by-state count that the bureau refuses to stand behind after the inauguration of President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr., the agency’s repudiation of such a count, and the methodology that produced it, would likely become an important factor in the ongoing litigation over the Trump administration’s plan.

“If you do it in an inaccurate way,” said Dale Ho, director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, “you get even farther from what the framers intended, which was a single, objective mathematical count of the population that’s indisputable, and that provides a basis for representation in the House that’s resistant to political manipulation.”

The Supreme Court is set this month to consider claims that Mr. Trump’s order violates the Constitution’s mandate that “the whole number of persons” in each state be used to allocate House seats. Mr. Ho argued that case before a three-judge panel in New York and in September won a unanimous ruling that Mr. Trump’s order exceeded his authority under federal laws governing the census and reapportionment.

Two other federal courts in California and Maryland have similarly ruled that it is unconstitutional and contrary to federal law to remove undocumented immigrants from the apportionment count.

The ramifications of the president’s order extend well beyond the House. Excluding unauthorized immigrants from population totals could drastically alter the allotment of federal dollars for a broad range of services, generally shifting grants and government resources from cities to less-populated areas.

Mr. Trump’s July order sowed chaos in a decennial head count that already had been wracked by the coronavirus pandemic, which had all but ground the count to a halt. In April, with many operations stalled, the bureau asked Congress to extend the deadline for delivering reapportionment totals from the statutory Dec. 31 deadline to April 2021.

But in July, Mr. Trump abruptly reversed course, ordering that the Dec. 31 deadline be met. That forced Census Bureau experts to compress five months of data processing into two and a half months.

In depositions this fall in a California lawsuit, Census Bureau officials said the agency could meet the new schedule only if it could avoid the software and data glitches that were common to previous censuses. The delays disclosed on Wednesday, officials said, only drove home how difficult that had been.

“Nobody should read anything nefarious about these anomalies or the problems they are causing,” one census official said. “These are typical processing anomalies that happen with every census. We tried our best to crunch the schedule, and we knew something like this might happen. And it did.”

The White House seeded the top ranks of the Census Bureau with political appointees this summer and fall, apparently to ensure that Mr. Trump’s reapportionment strategy would be carried out. In recent weeks, those appointees have become increasingly insistent that both the estimate of unauthorized immigrants and the actual census be rushed to completion, according to people both inside and outside the bureau.

The census has traditionally been prized for the precision and accuracy of the data it produces. Terri Ann Lowenthal, a consultant on census issues to an array of businesses, governments and nonprofits pressing for an accurate count, called reports of political pressure on the count disturbing.

“The bureau’s reported inability to finish compiling the apportionment numbers while President Trump is still in office could be leading to some political pressure which could affect the accuracy of the final numbers,” she said. “And that would be very unfortunate.”

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