It’s hard to overstate the importance of the census to everyday life in the United States. The vast amount of demographic information it gathers determines who gets how much political power in Congress and the states; it steers more than a trillion dollars in federal funding for health care and other critical services; it guides long-term economic decisions by governments, corporations and mom-and-pop stores; it helps determine the location of highways and schools, hospitals and housing, police and fire stations.
All Americans, wherever they live and whatever their politics, depend on the census being as complete and accurate as possible. In the middle of a pandemic that shut down much of the country for months, that means allowing extra time for the count to be finished and the data to be processed. So why is the Trump administration fighting this every step of the way?
In the best of times, it takes a lot of effort to go door to door to count everyone who didn’t return a census form. In times like these, it’s far harder. That’s why, back in April, as the coronavirus upended life across the globe, the Census Bureau extended its deadline for in-person data collection from Aug. 15 to Oct. 31.
The bureau also requested an extra four months to process and deliver its data to Congress, which uses that data to apportion districts for the House of Representatives. This was clearly necessary. Four former census directors agreed with the request. So, at the time, did President Trump. “I don’t know if you even have to ask them. This is called an act of God,” he said. “They have to give it, and I think 120 days isn’t nearly enough.”
But Congress didn’t give it — or, more precisely, Republicans in Congress didn’t. After the Democratic-led House of Representatives included the four-month extension in its version of the coronavirus relief bill known as the Heroes Act, the Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, refused to sign on.
Then, in August, the administration abruptly and without explanation reversed course, announcing that the data collection would end one month early, on Sept. 30. The deadline to deliver the apportionment data to Congress remains Dec. 31, rather than April 30, 2021, as the bureau had requested in the spring. In other words, the bureau has about half the time it initially asked for to complete its work.
On Sept. 4, a federal judge in California temporarily blocked the administration’s early end date, writing that “an inaccurate count would not be remedied for another decade.” The block lasts until Thursday, when the judge expects the administration to explain why it needs to wrap the census up so quickly.
Anyone who has been paying attention for the past four years knows exactly why: The Trump administration has, time and again, used its executive power to try to keep and maintain political power.
That’s what led Mr. Trump to try to put a citizenship question on the census, and then to defend it so dishonestly that even a Republican-appointed majority on the Supreme Court refused to buy it.
It’s also what led Mr. Trump to issue an executive order last month excluding all undocumented immigrants from the census reapportionment process. This past Thursday, a unanimous three-judge panel in Federal District Court in New York struck down the order, saying that the case was “not particularly close or complicated.” This is true. The Constitution explicitly requires that the census count all “persons” — not just all citizens, or all white people, or all Trump supporters.
Mr. Trump’s effort to stop the census count early in the middle of a pandemic is of a piece with this campaign of exclusion. The people who are most likely to be uncounted — those from marginalized, poor or otherwise hard-to-reach communities — are those whom the president considers undeserving of equal treatment.
But like any rush job, this is going to lead to major problems for everyone, as bureau officials have admitted in public and in private. In July, Albert Fontenot Jr., the census’s associate director, said, “We are past the window of being able to get those counts” by the end of 2020. Earlier this month, the House Oversight Committee flagged an internal Census Bureau document, which it received from a whistle-blower and which warned that the “highly compressed schedule” will “reduce accuracy” and “creates risk for serious errors not being discovered in the data.”
These errors aren’t just numbers on a spreadsheet. They have consequences for real people’s lives. Of the more than $1.5 trillion in federal funding allocated to the states based on census data, 75 percent goes to Medicare and Medicaid, according to Andrew Reamer, a research professor at George Washington University who studies the use and impact of census data.
Census data will be especially important over the next decade as the country confronts the long-term public health impact of the coronavirus pandemic. This will include, among other things, tracking the incidence of the virus, conducting epidemiological research and providing funds for medical equipment.
Such data are also essential to the functioning of the national economy. They provide large and small businesses with information about work forces and markets. They drive federal regulation of small-business loans, home mortgages and equal-employment practices.
“If someone wanted to screw up the American economy, a great way to do it is to screw up the census,” Mr. Reamer said. “There is no better, quicker way to make sure we’re wasting a lot of money and losing jobs.”
And, of course, the census data determine the allocation of political power in Congress and the states. For that reason, an accurate count should matter especially to lawmakers, who care about getting money for their states and holding on to their seats. But with a few exceptions, like Senator Steve Daines of Montana and Senators Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan of Alaska, Republicans have stayed silent. That’s true even in states like Kentucky and Alabama, deep red strongholds that stand to lose tens of millions of dollars in federal funding every year if there is even a 1 percent undercount in the census, according to reports released this week by the House Oversight Committee. Is Mr. McConnell listening?
The census is the first task of government laid out in the Constitution, and one of the most important. Properly conducted, it gives the clearest possible picture of what America looks like. That’s essential for a representative democracy.
It’s heartening that federal judges at all levels have seen through the Trump administration’s attempts to distort and hobble the census. But even if the count gets another month to finish, that will be no help unless the other deadlines are extended, too. Americans shouldn’t have to rely on the courts to do the job the Constitution assigns to Congress.