The 2020 census count may have officially ended, but the battle over the data it produced is just beginning.
"If the Census Bureau doesn't get the data processing and quality checks right, federal funding, political power will be skewed for a decade at least, and then generation quite possibly,” said Beth Lynk, the director of the Census Counts Campaign, which is part of the Leadership Conference Education Fund, a civil rights organization.
The all-important decennial abruptly ended last week after the Supreme Court suspended a lower court order that would have required the Trump administration to continue gathering critical census information through Oct. 31. The bureau argued it wanted to stop the count so it could start processing the data to meet a Dec. 31 deadline, set in federal law, for reporting the results to the president and the states.
Officials from the Census Bureau held a conference call with reporters earlier this week, stating it reached more than 99.9 percent of the nation’s households. The agency said roughly 67 percent of responses came from self-response online, by phone or by mail, which experts say is the most reliable data, and about 33 percent accounted for through the door-knocking operation.
The agency said it is now working around the clock to crunch data with high-tech computer processing systems and a statistical method called imputation, which allows the bureau to fill in incomplete data of households.
However, advocacy groups and state and local officials who spoke to NBC News expressed deep concern about the quality and completeness of the data. Some said they are still mulling legal challenges over the data and that they plan to pressure Congress to extend the deadline.
"The Census Bureau just needs more time to process, improve and tabulate the data," Lynk said. "You can't rush the scientific process."
Lynk called on Congress to "step up and do what you can to ensure that the bureau has the time to ensure that marginalized communities, communities of color, rural communities, tribal communities are not erased from the 2020 census by moving forward with a process that would shortchange the important data quality tabulation and processing work that has to happen."
Julie Menin, the census director for New York City, said in a telephone interview that because of the politics that were injected into the census, the city has worked diligently to get its self-response rate up. Currently, it stands at 61.8 percent, compared to 61.9 percent in 2010, Menin said.
“We’re going to look very closely at the data and preserve every legal option,” Menin said. “We believe this is an extremely rushed process and there should have been more time.”
Menin said the 99.9 percent completion rate "seems implausible" given the many logistical challenges the census has faced.
Due to the pandemic, in-person door-knocking operations were suspended in March and only restarted in the late summer. Enumerators from different areas of the country spoke to NBC News last month, describing a logistical nightmare in collecting data and getting information from households.
A leaked internal Census Bureau document sent to the House Oversight Committee and obtained by NBC News last month warned that the agency already has less time and fewer resources to review the data than in previous years. The document warned that the "highly compressed" timeline will lead to less accurate results.
The data crunched by the bureau illustrates the racial makeup of America and helps determine the distribution of $1.5 trillion in federal aid and how many congressional seats and Electoral College votes each state gets, among other things. Experts have warned for months that inaccurate or improperly processed data means many vulnerable groups could still be left out, altering the resources these communities receive and the power they wield.
Disproportionately affected are Native tribes, Latinos, Asian Americans and Black Americans, who already have historically been undercounted. Many of them live in hard-to-reach areas, such as rural communities and areas with limited access to the internet.
"Immigrants are people and must be afforded the opportunity to be counted," said Krish O'Mara Vignarajah, the CEO of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, an immigration advocacy group. "We cannot go back to the time in our country where people were not counted as full human beings."
Massachusetts Secretary of the Commonwealth William Galvin told NBC News he also raised concerns about the federal count. The state is home to a growing foreign-born population and a number of colleges and universities. He said the state has compiled its own census household data, including college students who would be in the state if not for the pandemic, and has shared those state population records with the agency to supplement the federal data.
But he said all options are still on the table.
“If it ends up in litigation then so be it,” Galvin said. “To say it was flawed, it would be an understatement.”
Galvin said he believes the count in his state is falling short not only because of the logistical issues brought out by the pandemic but because of political influence.
He called the figures that the bureau provided "false" and raised concerns about how enumerators collected the data. Galvin said he has reason to believe the data submitted in his state by enumerators are riddled with errors.
The agency, for instance, fell short of reaching 99.9 percent in places like Quincy, Massachusetts. The agency also fell short of that number in other areas of the country such as Asheville, North Carolina, and Jackson, Mississippi. Officials worry that even 0.1 percent of the country’s population not tallied could result in thousands, potentially millions, of people not counted.
“This was a strategic decision,” Galvin said. “It’s been politically driven from the top down.”
Menin, the New York City census director, said the Census Bureau needs deep internal reforms to ensure it is free from political influence.
“It needs to be an independent agency or the census director should be appointed by a bipartisan committee,” she said. “It’s supposed to be an apolitical exercise and it's been anything but that.”