The Consequences of an Incomplete Census

Reduced political power. Insufficient COVID vaccination. Disenfranchisement. And worse.

A pamphlet reading "Do Your Census!" is see in a box next to some oranges.
A pamphlet with 2020 census information is included in a box of food to be distributed on Thursday in Paramount, California. Mario Tama/Getty Images

The 2020 census is critically important for our democracy. It not only tallies the U.S. population but in essence determines the people’s ultimate political power. And right now, it’s a mess. The counting process has been disrupted by the pandemic. Fears of the Trump administration’s crackdown on immigrants are preventing some people from filling it out. And recently, the Census Bureau announced it was moving up its count deadline by one month, stoking concerns that the statistics the census will collect and utilize for the next decade will be woefully incomplete. To make some sense of what’s going on and why it’s so worrying, I spoke with Hansi Lo Wang, a reporter on the 2020 census for NPR, on Tuesday’s episode of What Next. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mary Harris: How many people remain uncounted at this point?

Hansi Lo Wang: The Census Bureau estimates that roughly 4 out of 10 households have not been counted yet.

That seems like a lot.

It is a lot, and door knocking is cut short a full month. It was expected to last through October because of the pandemic. The Census Bureau decided to end it on Sept. 30. Shortening this time period is just another hurdle to getting a complete count.

To not participate in the census is risking not getting your fair share in federal funding: $1.5 trillion dollars a year, determined in part by census numbers, including for Medicare and Medicaid, for schools, roads, emergency response services, as well as political representation for 10 years. Congressional seats, Electoral College votes. And how voting districts are redrawn. Not to mention this census data are critical for policymakers and researchers and public health professionals. When a coronavirus vaccine is ready to be administered, public health officials are likely going to have to rely on census data in order to determine how many vaccination shots any community might need. If we don’t have an accurate count of every person living in a community, we may not have enough shots ready.

Four former census directors have issued a statement explaining why cutting short the door knocking effort is problematic. It could result in a drastic undercount, meaning government resources will be diverted away from those who need them. But they also said the bureau’s hands are a bit tied here: Because door knocking was delayed by the pandemic, all of the bureau’s other deadlines needed to get pushed back too. Only, census deadlines are controlled by Congress.

After the pandemic hit, the bureau publicly announced in April that it could no longer meet another legal deadline that says it has to produce the latest state population counts by Dec. 31 of this year. These are used to determine how many seats in the House of Representatives each state gets. The bureau said, we need Congress to pass a new law that would extend those reporting deadlines, more time to count through October.

Despite the president’s enthusiasm for an unprecedented extension, Congress hasn’t approved it.

For the past few months, the bureau has been operating as if it would get that extension. But only Democrats have introduced legislation that would actually grant those deadline extensions. Republicans have not introduced any legislation. I was looking at the latest coronavirus relief package proposal that the Republicans put out. There’s no mention of census deadline extensions, only a proposal to boost funding to help the bureau overcome these COVID-19-related challenges. So over these past few months, there’s been a growing concern that we actually won’t see a deadline extension. All this uncertainty is not good for the bureau. This is a massive operation.

You’re giving me a new way to think about it, because when I heard that the census was deciding to wrap up the counting early, I thought this was a political decision because Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross [who helps oversee the bureau] has been such an ally to the president, and the census has been such a political football. You’re saying it’s not just an executive wanting to wrap this up. It’s also the fact that legislators aren’t doing the work that would actually allow the census to move forward in the way everyone agrees it should.

I’ve been trying to figure out what sparked all these decisions. And it’s unclear. I’ve asked for comment from the White House: Does it currently support these deadline extensions? I’ve gotten no response. I’ve asked Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office. No response. I’ve asked other Senate Republican leaders. No response. One thing to keep in mind here is that Trump recently released a memo that calls for unauthorized immigrants to be excluded not from the census in general but specifically from the census numbers used to redistribute seats in Congress.

How would you even do that?

That’s a really good question. Experts I’ve talked to say there is no legal way. There is no question about immigration status on the 2020 census forms. So in order to try to figure out who among those counted for are unauthorized immigrants, the Census Bureau would have to figure out a way to rely on other government records and come up with an estimate and use statistical sampling, which the Supreme Court ruled in 1999 is not allowed.

Is there any evidence that the census is trying to do that work?

The Census Bureau said last week that it is actively trying to fulfill these requests from Trump. This is specifically an order that is directing the commerce secretary and, by default, the Census Bureau to try to figure out a way to present two sets of numbers. One is the full population count of the United States through the 2020 census. And another is a count that would either exclude unauthorized immigrants or be a count of unauthorized immigrants ready to be subtracted from, essentially, the total population count.

Traditionally, the Census Bureau has counted the people and then decided what that counting means in terms of representation in the House. But the apportionment is a tradition. It’s not actually a rule. I wonder if there is any momentum to have that apportionment done by some kind of third party in this situation.

What’s interesting is that traditionally it’s the Census Bureau that is known as the third party. It’s known as the federal government’s largest statistical agency, a nonpartisan institution that produces stats that everyone would hope are just the facts through the data. Now we’re in a situation where there are growing concerns that the Trump administration may try to play a more active role, as signaled by the president’s apportionment memo.

The president and the Republican Party are trying to change the way we count people with the idea that it will help them politically. But I think about states like Florida or Texas or Arizona, red states that also have large populations of Latinos who could be left out if the numbers are changed somehow. I wonder about this strategy, how it might affect the party, and whether you hear any of your sources talking about that.

No one really knows what the 2020 census results will ultimately show. And because of that, no one knows what happens if you start to tinker with it any which way. There are multiple lawsuits right now against Trump’s apportionment memo, and challengers based in New York have presented an expert report by a political scientist who has done an estimate showing that Texas, if unauthorized immigrants are excluded from the apportionment count, is at a really high chance of losing a seat in the House of Representatives. And let’s not forget, when you lose a seat in the House of Representatives, your state is also losing a vote in the Electoral College. You have less of a say when it comes to choosing the next president.

You’ve pointed out that Trump would get these census numbers delivered to him while he’s still in office, even if he’s not reelected in November, if the census sticks to its deadline. I’m curious what the meaning of that is. If he gets these numbers, does that mean he certifies them in some way? That they become the official count or the official apportionment?

No. The president has limited authority when we’re talking about this apportionment process. Ultimately, it’s Congress that does that certification and informs the states exactly how many House seats they have for the next 10 years. Right now what’s happening is Trump and the Justice Department have signaled that the president should have more discretion than has been exercised before in determining who should be included in this count.

When do you think the 2020 census will be over?

I don’t know, and I don’t think anyone can give you a straight answer at this point. We’re in the middle of a pandemic. I’m already tracking seven lawsuits over this apportionment memo. Who knows exactly when this legal battle will be resolved?

Listen to the full episode using the player below, or subscribe to What Next on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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