Left Out of the Census

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S1: Hansi Lo Wang reports for NPR. He’s got a pretty nerdy beat the census it’s going to be that will get you the American Statistical Association’s Excellence in Statistical Reporting Award. Yeah, Haines’s got that. It’s going to be with a lot of hard to comprehend buzzwords and catchphrases. So I asked Hanzi if you would translate one for me. I keep seeing this phrase being tossed around or this acronym and RFQ. What is NERV that mean Nerf to Nerf?

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S2: Probably. That’s my favorite since this acronym and there are a lot of census acronyms.

S3: I don’t know what what people may think it is, but I’ll tell you, it’s nonresponse. Follow up. This is what the Census Bureau calls the doorknocking effort. When you see workers out with their census bags wearing face masks and carrying smartphones to collect people’s information. This is all part of that. And this this is the operation the Census Bureau relies on to make sure that every person living in the country is counted, because historically there comes a point where only a certain percentage of the country has filled out a form on their own, this Nerf fu effort it’s launching nationally this week.

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S1: And it’s critical because people who don’t fill out the census form and they get it, they tend to be disproportionately poorer people of color. So for the next few weeks, census workers are going to go to their doors again and again to see if they can extract the information they need.

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S2: The Census Bureau’s policy is that by the third time a Census Bureau can’t reach someone at their door and they haven’t received a response yet, then that census worker will start trying to interview neighbors, what’s known as proxy’s, someone who can answer on behalf of that household. So they rely on neighbors, sometimes landlords, sometimes real estate agents, anyone who is available who may know that’s dedication. Well, it’s a constitutional mandate. If you take a look at the Constitution, it’s the fifth and sixth sentences of the Constitution where the census is spelled out before any mention of a president, before any mention of voting. It spells out that accounting, an actual enumeration, has to take place once every ten years in order to determine how many seats in the House of Representatives each state gets.

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S4: So how many Americans, as we move on with this counting, how many people remain uncounted at this point?

S2: Well, the Census Bureau estimates that roughly four out of 10 households have not been counted yet. It seems like a lot. It is a lot. And I think another thing that you have to keep in mind is that doorknocking is cut short a full month of what was expected to last through October 31st because of the pandemic. The Census Bureau has decided to cut it short and ended September 30th.

S1: Today on the show, cutting doorknocking short like this. It’s just the latest reason consi sources have started fretting about this year’s census. The question of who counts? It’s getting a lot more complicated. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick with us. Every time we do a show about the census, we have to take a minute and make sure our listeners aren’t zoning out. We’ve got to explain why something so mind numbing, counting people is so important. And he’s pretty good at this. So I’ll let them take it from here.

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S2: To not participate in the census is risking not getting your fair share in federal funding, one point five trillion dollars a year, determined in part by census numbers, including for Medicare, from Medicaid, for schools, for roads, emergency response services, as well as local representation for 10 years congressional seats, Electoral College votes, and how voting districts are redrawn, not to mention census data are critical for policymakers and researchers and public health professionals. When it comes time and there is a coronavirus vaccine ready to be administered to the public, 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. Hmm. If we don’t have an accurate count of every person living in a community, we may not have enough vaccination shots ready.

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S1: And the census has been having problems. Like you mentioned earlier, the door knocking census workers do. That entire effort is being cut short by a whole month for former census directors, issued a statement explaining why this is a problem, how it could result in a drastic undercount, meaning government resources will be diverted away from people who need them. But these former census leaders, they also said the bureau’s hands are a little bit tied here because doorknocking was delayed by the pandemic. That meant all the bureau’s other deadlines needed to get pushed back. Only census deadlines, they’re controlled by Congress.

S2: After the pandemic hit, the bureau publicly announced in April that it could no longer meet another deadline, a legal deadline, which is federal law, says that the Census Bureau has to produce through. The commerce secretary who oversees the bureau has to produce to the president the latest state population counts by December 31st of this year. These are the same population counts used to determine how many seats in the House of Representatives each state gets.

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S1: This is what’s known as apportionment. It’s the second big deal thing the census does. And the census said because of the health crisis, because of these delays and doorknocking apportionment, it couldn’t get done by the end of the year, the bureau said in April.

S2: We can’t meet that deadline anymore. There’s been too many delays. We’re expecting even more delays, possibly looking into this very unpredictable pandemic. So we need more time and we need Congress to pass a new law that would extend those reporting deadlines so then we can build in more time to count building, more time to count through October 31st.

S1: And all that seems totally reasonable because lots of businesses and agencies were basically saying, holy, holy moly, we have a pandemic here. We’re not going to be able to do what we thought we were able to do.

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S2: Yeah, I mean, when this announcement came out, this was major news. The census really hasn’t been delayed to that extent ever before. And to not meet these legal deadlines for the what’s known as the apportionment count was really just this is making census history, U.S. Census history. But I talked to when that announcement came out, I talked to former Census Bureau directors and they put out a statement. They said, we support this plan. This you know, there’s no perfect solution here. We have to roll with it. And what’s interesting was that members of Congress learned it not from the Census Bureau, but from the Commerce Secretary, Wilbur Ross, an appointee of President Trump. And that same day that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and four members of Congress about this new plan. That same day President Trump spoke about it at the White House during what was then his daily press briefings about the coronavirus and accuracy.

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S3: We may be asking for an extension because obviously and he said essentially that he supported this plan and that he thought that this request for a 120 day extension, he thought that 120 days isn’t even enough. And it says things like, you know, Congress hat, they have to pass this extension. There’s no choice here. This is an act of God, an act of God. This is called a situation that has to be they have to give.

S1: And I think despite the president’s enthusiasm for 120 day extension, Congress just hasn’t approved it. And the Census Bureau just keeps humming along.

S2: For the past few months, since April, they’ve been operating as if they would get that extension. But only Democrats have introduced legislation that would actually grant those deadline extensions. And Republik. 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 sensor’s deadline extensions, only a proposal to boost funding to help the bureau overcome these covid-19 related challenges. And so over these past few months, there’s been a growing concern that are we actually going to see a deadline extension? And as we get closer and closer into nerve flu went to door, all this uncertainty is not good for this industry. This is a massive operation. And if deadlines aren’t real deadlines, then you can run into real problems. And this is what happened just a few weeks ago when what was thought to be the counting, the end of county, October 31st, all of a sudden changed, huh?

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S4: It’s interesting. You’re giving me a new way to think about it, because when I heard that the census was deciding to kind of wrap up the counting early, I thought, like, oh, is this a decision that’s political it because, you know, Wilbur Ross has been such an ally to the president and the census has been such a political football. And you’re not saying it’s not, but you’re making the picture more complicated because it’s not just, you know, an executive saying, do this, wrap this up. It’s also the fact that the legislators aren’t doing the work that would actually allow the census to move forward in the way that everyone agrees it should now.

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S2: I’ve been trying to figure out what sparked all these decisions, and it’s unclear. The White House press office I’ve asked for comment on, does the White House currently support these deadline extensions? And 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. And no, the one thing to keep in mind here is that one thing that has also happened is that President 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, those state population counts used for reapportionment. And what’s interesting is that by not extending the reporting deadlines, by keeping to December 31st, as when the Census Bureau, through the commerce secretary, has to present the first batch of census results to the president, not extending those deadlines means that even if President Trump is not reelected, he will be the president, possibly the lame duck president who receives these latest population counts. The same counts that he says he wants to find a way to exclude unauthorized immigrants from.

S4: How would you even do that?

S2: That’s a really good question, and experts I’ve talked to say there is no legal way to do that. The reason is because No. One, there is no question about immigration status on the 20 20 census forms. So the Census Bureau is collecting information about the residents of this country without knowing whether any given resident has legal immigration status or does not have authorization to be United States. That’s not clear to them because they’re following a constitutional mandate to count every person living in the country. And so in order to try to figure out who amongst those counted for the 2020 census are unauthorized immigrants, the Census Bureau, if it has to, would have to figure out a way to possibly 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.

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S4: Is there any evidence that the census is trying to do that work?

S2: The Census Bureau has said in this most recent statement just last week that it is actively trying to fulfill these requests from President Trump and what it is. Again, it’s specifically an order that is directing the commerce secretary and this and and by default, the Census Bureau to try to figure out a way to do this and present to the president by the deadline, which is currently December 31st. 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 exclude unauthorized immigrants or be a count of unauthorized immigrants ready to be subtracted from essentially the total population count.

S4: You know, I read one more thing about the census that I thought was really interesting here, which is we talk about the census is one thing, you know, counting and then the apportionment. And traditionally the census has done both of those things. They’ve counted the people and then they’ve decided what that counting means in terms of representation in the House. But that’s a tradition. It’s not actually a rule. And I wonder if there is any momentum to have that apportionment done by some kind of third party in this situation.

S2: Well, what’s interesting is that traditionally it’s the Census Bureau who’s known as the quote unquote third party, it’s known as the federal government. The largest statistical agency is supposed to be a nonpartisan agency institution that produces statistics which everyone would hope are just the facts through the data. And now we’re in a situation where there are growing concerns that the Trump administration, the White House, may try to play a more active role as signaled by President Trump’s apportionment memo in determining how many seats in Congress each state gets for the next 10 years.

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S4: Here’s another thing that’s on my mind, which is if the president or the Republican Party, whoever is trying to change the way we count people with the idea that it will help them politically, I think about states like Florida or Texas or Arizona Republican states or have been Republican states recently, but also have large populations of people who are Latin X people who could be left out if the numbers are changed somehow. I just wonder long term about this strategy and how it might impact the party and whether you hear any of your sources talking about that.

S2: No one really knows what the 2020 census results will ultimately show. And because of that, no one really knows what happens if you start to tinker with it any which way, what will happen. You know, there are multiple lawsuits right now against President 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, Texas 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 time to choosing the next president.

S4: 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 re-elected in November, if the census sticks to its deadline. I’m kind of curious what the meaning of that is. If he gets these numbers, if they’re presented to him, does that mean he certifies them in some way? They become the official count? No. Or the official apportionment.

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S2: The president has limited authority. We’re talking about this apportionment process. The president is traditionally essentially playing a messenger role, handing off from the Census Bureau, slash commerce secretary, the state population counts and the apportionment numbers over to Congress. And it is the clerk of the House of Representatives that receives them. And ultimately, it’s Congress that does that certification and informs the states exactly how many House seats they have for the next ten years. And so right now, what’s happening is that President Trump and the Justice Department has signaled that they are arguing that the president has more discretion than has been exercised before in determining who should be included in this count.

S1: When do you think the 2020 census will be over?

S2: I don’t know, Mary. I really don’t and I don’t think anyone can give you a straight answer at this point, no one knows.

S5: No one knows for sure. We’re in the middle of a pandemic. And even if the Census Bureau does not get extensions, they keep to this shortened timeframe and they deliver the portion account to the president by the end of this year. I’m already tracking seven lawsuits over this apportionment memo and who knows exactly when it will when those this legal battle will be resolved.

S6: Hansi Lo Wang, thank you so much for joining me. You’re welcome, Mary. Hansi Lo Wang covers the 2020 census for NPR. And that’s the show What Next is produced by Jason de Leon, Danielle Hewitt and Mary Wilson. We got a little help from Daniel Avis and we are led by Alicia Montgomery and Allison Benedikt. Look for me on Twitter about Mary’s Desk. Thanks for listening. A Mary Harris. I’ll catch you back here tomorrow.