Days after a judge ordered the Census Bureau to continue enumerating for another month beyond its current Sept. 30 deadline, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who oversees the agency, announced Monday he intends to end all in-person counting efforts next week.
“The Secretary of Commerce has announced a target date of October 5, 2020 to conclude 2020 Census self-response and field data collection operations,” according to a Census Bureau announcement made on Twitter and on its website.
Plaintiffs in a lawsuit and census experts argued a shortened census count would risk missing or double counting people, skewing the results. Because of delays earlier in the year related to the coronavirus pandemic, the administration originally postponed certain counting deadlines and sought a four-month legislative extension of when it needed to delivery census totals to the White House. But it abandoned that effort after President Donald Trump signed a memorandum in July trying to exclude undocumented immigrants from apportionment.
The agency provided no further information or rationale for the new end date, and a spokesman referred questions back to the statement. As of late Monday afternoon, the agency also had not filed any documents in a California case overseen by U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh of the Northern District of California. Koh ruled against the Census Bureau last week, finding that the Sept. 30 deadline likely violated administrative law.
Democrats and other advocates criticized Ross' decision to end the in-person count next week.
“The Trump Administration’s unlawful undercount will negatively affect the hundreds of millions of dollars that both red and blue states are due in federal funding,” said House Oversight and Reform Chairwoman Carolyn B. Maloney, D-N.Y., in a statement. “It is time that the Trump Administration stopped working to politicize and jeopardize the 2020 Census.”
While Monday’s announcement may not have gone against the exact wording of the judge’s order — the judge enjoined the agency from its Sept. 30 deadline, but did not order it to comply with its previous plan to end the count Oct. 31 — it’s not clear the administration took into account the judge’s findings.
Koh in her decision said the Census Bureau did not consider the potential inaccuracies introduced by a shortened count — or "replan" — that it used to come up with its rationale for seeking a deadline extension.
“Even as the bureau began to develop the replan at the secretary’s direction, the bureau continued to acknowledge that the replan would present an unacceptable level of accuracy,” her ruling said.
In a Monday court conference, Koh ordered the government to turn over all documents related to the Oct. 5 deadline by the next day.
In the 78-page opinion issued last week, Koh ran through a litany of potential inaccuracies and biases that the shortened count could introduce into the results. Many of those came from agency documents created before the decision to shorten the count.
In one July email, Associate Director for Field Operations Tim Olson said “any thinking person who would believe we can deliver apportionment by 12/31 has either a mental deficiency or a political motivation.”
A week after that email, the Commerce Department directed the Census Bureau to engage in a “replan” of the census to comply with the existing Dec. 31 statutory deadline. That resulted in a shortened schedule with in-person counting efforts ending Sept. 30, which became the subject of the lawsuit.
The House passed legislation to extend the deadline as part of broader pandemic relief legislation, but the Senate did not act on the measure.