WASHINGTON — The tortuous course of the 2020 census, first slowed by the coronavirus pandemic and then placed on a fast track by the Trump administration, took yet another twist on Friday when a federal judge temporarily blocked the administration’s order to wrap up the count a month ahead of schedule.
Judge Lucy H. Koh of the United States District Court in Northern California halted plans for an early finish to the head-counting portion of the census at least until a mid-September hearing in a lawsuit that seeks to scrap the expedited schedule altogether. Noting that the Census Bureau already has begun to dismantle counting operations in some places where it considers the count complete, the judge effectively said the plaintiffs’ suit could be overtaken by events if the wind-down of the count was not suspended.
“Because the decennial census is at issue here, an inaccurate count would not be remedied for another decade,” Judge Koh wrote.
The National Urban League, the League of Women Voters and a host of advocacy groups and local governments filed the suit last month. They argue that the order to end the head-counting portion of the census early will lead to an inaccurate tally that will cost some communities both political representation and millions of federal dollars that are allotted based on population totals.
The court order throws another wrench into a census that already was the most ill-starred and politically freighted tally since at least 1920, when a Republican-dominated Congress refused outright to accept a population count that would have shifted political power to Democratic cities.
As Covid-19 swept the nation this spring, the bureau was forced to postpone key parts of its population count until August. The Trump administration said at the time that it would extend the deadline for completing the count to October 31 to make up for that delay, and move the date for delivering population totals to the White House to April 2021, from its current December 31 deadline.
But as census outreach prepared to resume last month, the administration reversed course, ordering the count wrapped up by September 30, and delivery of totals by December 31. The apparent reason was that the administration wants to exclude noncitizens from the population totals that will be sent to Congress early next year for reallocating seats in the House of Representatives and drawing political boundaries nationwide.
But the Census Bureau can only deliver population totals to the White House by December 31 if it shortens the time spent counting residents. And with an uphill battle to win a second term in the election in November, Mr. Trump can be assured of control over population totals only if they are delivered to the White House by that deadline.
Critics have called that a baldly political attempt to create a whiter, more Republican-leaning population total for use in reapportionment and redistricting. The lawsuit opposing the shortened deadline said as much, saying the schedule suggested it was devised “to facilitate another illegal act: suppressing the political power of communities of color by excluding undocumented people from the final apportionment count.”
An array of experts, including former Census Bureau directors, have warned that the earlier deadlines could not be met without shortcuts that would lead to a dramatically less accurate census — in particular, a census that would miss the poor, the young and minority groups who are traditionally the hardest to count.
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Frequently Asked Questions
Updated September 4, 2020
- In the beginning, the coronavirus seemed like it was primarily a respiratory illness — many patients had fever and chills, were weak and tired, and coughed a lot, though some people don’t show many symptoms at all. Those who seemed sickest had pneumonia or acute respiratory distress syndrome and received supplemental oxygen. By now, doctors have identified many more symptoms and syndromes. In April, the C.D.C. added to the list of early signs sore throat, fever, chills and muscle aches. Gastrointestinal upset, such as diarrhea and nausea, has also been observed. Another telltale sign of infection may be a sudden, profound diminution of one’s sense of smell and taste. Teenagers and young adults in some cases have developed painful red and purple lesions on their fingers and toes — nicknamed “Covid toe” — but few other serious symptoms.
Why is it safer to spend time together outside?
- Outdoor gatherings lower risk because wind disperses viral droplets, and sunlight can kill some of the virus. Open spaces prevent the virus from building up in concentrated amounts and being inhaled, which can happen when infected people exhale in a confined space for long stretches of time, said Dr. Julian W. Tang, a virologist at the University of Leicester.
Why does standing six feet away from others help?
- The coronavirus spreads primarily through droplets from your mouth and nose, especially when you cough or sneeze. The C.D.C., one of the organizations using that measure, bases its recommendation of six feet on the idea that most large droplets that people expel when they cough or sneeze will fall to the ground within six feet. But six feet has never been a magic number that guarantees complete protection. Sneezes, for instance, can launch droplets a lot farther than six feet, according to a recent study. It’s a rule of thumb: You should be safest standing six feet apart outside, especially when it’s windy. But keep a mask on at all times, even when you think you’re far enough apart.
I have antibodies. Am I now immune?
- As of right now, that seems likely, for at least several months. There have been frightening accounts of people suffering what seems to be a second bout of Covid-19. But experts say these patients may have a drawn-out course of infection, with the virus taking a slow toll weeks to months after initial exposure. People infected with the coronavirus typically produce immune molecules called antibodies, which are protective proteins made in response to an infection. These antibodies may last in the body only two to three months, which may seem worrisome, but that’s perfectly normal after an acute infection subsides, said Dr. Michael Mina, an immunologist at Harvard University. It may be possible to get the coronavirus again, but it’s highly unlikely that it would be possible in a short window of time from initial infection or make people sicker the second time.
What are my rights if I am worried about going back to work?
In a deposition filed on Friday, the census official in daily charge of the count, Albert E. Fontenot Jr., testified that the bureau was on schedule to complete the biggest part of its remaining count — the tally of non-responding households by an army of 235,000 door-knockers — by the end of September. Mr. Fontenot said the bureau had counted more than 60 percent of those non-responders as of September 1, and 84 percent of all households over all.
He also said that the bureau planned to speed up its data processing operations by eliminating “redundant quality control operations,” delaying some work until after initial population figures are sent to the White House and cutting 21 days from time allotted for “subject matter expert review and software error remediation,” among other moves.
“These changes increase the risk the Census Bureau will not identify errors during post processing in time to fix them,” he said. But, he added, “the Census Bureau is confident that it can achieve a complete and accurate census and report apportionment counts” by December 31.
In her ruling blocking the wind-down of the count, Judge Koh noted that senior census officials had come to the opposite conclusion this summer. In fact, she writes, Mr. Fontenot “acknowledged publicly less than two months ago that the bureau was “past the window of being able to get accurate counts to the President by December 31.”