Trump floats delaying the 2020 census for citizenship question

The president said he has asked lawyers if it is possible to delay the 2020 census "no matter how long."
Image: Donald Trump
President Donald Trump walks on the South Lawn of the White House on June 26, 2019.Carolyn Kaster / AP

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By David K. Li

President Donald Trump suggested that he wants to delay the 2020 census following a Supreme Court ruling that its form cannot include a question about citizenship.

The deeply divided high court ruled that while the government has the right to ask the citizenship question, it needs to properly justify the change in Census Bureau practice.

"Seems totally ridiculous that our government, and indeed Country, cannot ask a basic question of Citizenship in a very expensive, detailed and important Census, in this case for 2020," the president tweeted after the decision.

"I have asked the lawyers if they can delay the Census, no matter how long, until the United States Supreme Court is given additional information from which it can make a final and decisive decision on this very critical matter," Trump wrote in two tweets Thursday afternoon.

"Can anyone really believe that as a great Country, we are not able the ask whether or not someone is a Citizen. Only in America!"

Philip Stark, a statistics professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and a census expert, said he can’t recall any time the White House has asked for a delay in the decennial count.

“Months delay wouldn’t be super bad, I suppose, but a year’s delay would be unheard of,” he told NBC News.

Terri Ann Lowenthal, a consultant and leading census authority, said Trump's call for a delay threatens the count being carried out on time in 2020, as constitutionally mandated.

"We are in uncharted territory," she said. "I believe if the Census Bureau cannot proceed with printing the forms as scheduled, there is a risk we will not have census next year."

The execution of the process to take count of America is far more complex than simply mailing out forms and counting the responses, experts said. Simply, the logistics of printing and the U.S. Postal Service's timeline for delivery have been in the planning since the last census was taken a decade ago.

An overwhelming majority of census forms are scheduled to go out March 12, in order for the count to be finished by Dec. 31, 2020.

"This is the nation’s most complex peacetime operation. It is carried out on an unforgiving and unamenable schedule," Lowenthal said.

"There are so many moving parts here, it cannot be redone on a dime."

Despite Trump's call to delay the count, the calendar itself might make that impossible, according to Joshua Geltzer, founding executive director of the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection and a visiting law professor at Georgetown University.

In a videotaped statement, Geltzer called the high court's ruling Thursday a "last major word" on whether Trump can ask 2020 census respondents if they are citizens.

"Given the court's holding and given the timeline for the 2020 census, this seems likely to be the last major word on the citizenship question," Geltzer said.

Various government officials have said forms need to start printing soon, perhaps as early as Monday or as late as October. In any case, time is running short for the Census Bureau.

"It's a matter of reality, they need time to print the forms and get it the mail, it's such a massive undertaking," said Kelly Percival, counsel with the advocacy group the Brennan Center For Justice who has been following the census case.

Percival couldn’t fathom a scenario where the Census Bureau simply decided not to carry out and complete the mandated count by its Dec, 31, 2020 deadline.

“It’s a constitutional requirement — to get it done” by next year's end, said Percival. “The constitution requires the whole number of people in the country to be counted every 10 years. It’s not a complicated requirement."

Chief Justice John Roberts joined the court's four liberal justices in the 5-4 ruling.

Roberts, who has increasingly become the court's swing vote, strongly hinted that he believed the Trump administration's stated intention for the citizenship question “seems to have been contrived” and was “more of a distraction.”

“We are presented, in other words, with an explanation for agency action that is incongruent with what the record reveals about the agency’s priorities and decision-making process,” Roberts wrote.