Federal Judge Blocks, For Now, Further Winding Down of the Census

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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.

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.”

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