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As census deadline looms, experts warn rushing count will come at great cost

Experts and researchers have expressed deep concerns about the quality and completeness of the data and whether the census will meet its Dec. 31 deadline.
Image: A demonstrator holds a sign denouncing a Trump administration plan to add a citizenship question to the census outside of the Supreme Court on June 27, 2019.
A demonstrator holds a sign denouncing a Trump administration plan to add a citizenship question to the census outside the Supreme Court on June 27, 2019.Andrew Harrer / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

The fate of this year's census remains uncertain as the deadline to finalize the numbers approaches and experts express doubt about the government's ability to produce an accurate count of the country under such tight constraints.

The crucial count has faced months of constraints because of the coronavirus pandemic and the Trump administration's effort to exclude undocumented immigrants from the final tally. Although the Census Bureau is working to produce a final report to President Donald Trump by the Dec. 31 deadline, advocates and even some census staffers have expressed doubt that it will be able to do so.

"All of this really rests on the fact that we have data that we can trust, the data we can rely on," said Beth Lynk, the director of the Census Counts Campaign, part of the Leadership Conference Education Fund, a civil rights organization.

"And we have to listen to the data scientists that say we need more time and ensure that politics, politicians and partisans are not allowed to interrupt their work and manipulate the data. Congress can act right now. ... But we're really saying: 'Listen to the scientists. Listen to the experts.'"

Experts and researchers have expressed deep concern about the quality and completeness of the data, particularly after the agency's director, Steven Dillingham, said in a statement late last month that processing anomalies were found in the data. He said the anomalies were routine, but media reports suggested that data scientists within the bureau are fretting about getting the all-too-important decennial count right.

Demonstrators rally at the Supreme Court on April 23, 2019, to protest a proposal to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census.Mandel Ngan / AFP - Getty Images file

"The career professional staff within the Census Bureau has been very clear that their overriding priority is a complete and accurate count," said Chris Mihm, the managing director for strategic issues at the Government Accountability Office, a federal watchdog agency. "And hitting the deadline, while important, is secondary to providing a complete and accurate count, and so that's why they're saying we may not get to December 31st."

The census, which is required every 10 years by the Constitution, is used to determine how many members of Congress each state gets in the House of Representatives. The data are also used to calculate local governments' share of $1.5 trillion in many federal programs.

Mihm said that even small, routine anomalies can make big differences.

"It's important to keep in mind that the distribution of the last seat in the House of Representatives often turns on a very small number," he said.

For example, in 2010, the last seat went to Minnesota based on a population difference of about 16,000 compared to North Carolina. In 2000, the last seat went to North Carolina over Utah because of a difference of about 900 people, he said.

"You don't need a lot of errors or a lot of mistakes or a lot of anomalies to end up making a difference in the seats of the House of Representatives," he said. "We're at the point now in the census where small numbers can have a very, very big impact on political representation, and that's for the next decade."

The Census Bureau said in a statement that the public should have confidence in the data because it is not only using career professionals within the bureau, but also working with outside experts to evaluate the data, and because it will release detailed data metrics for the first time.

"The Census Bureau is working hard to process the data in order to deliver complete and accurate state population counts as close to the December 31, 2020, statutory deadline as possible," a spokesperson said in an email.

A leaked internal Census Bureau document sent to the House Oversight Committee and obtained by NBC News this year warned that the agency already has far less time and fewer resources to review the data than in previous years.

There are still legal challenges aimed at extending the deadline and pressure on Congress to step in, but lawmakers appear unwilling to strike a deal that could give the agency more time.

The Supreme Court on Friday dismissed a challenge to Trump's plan to exclude undocumented immigrants from the final census count, although the 6-3 majority opinion said it was expressing no view about whether the policy would be unconstitutional.

The unsigned opinion said too much is unknown about whether the administration can even carry out the plan and about what effect it would have on the states, while the dissenting justices said the court should have decided the case because the Constitution requires the census to include a count of "the whole number of persons in each state."

Legal and census experts said Trump's plan is dead in the water because it's not clear whether he will get the final numbers from the agency before he leaves office next month, and President-elect Joe Biden is extremely unlikely to carry out the order either way.

Tom Wolf, a lawyer at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School, which is involved in separate litigation to extend the deadline, said that Trump plays a "very narrow role" in handling the data and that he would likely get sued if he tries to carry out the plan now.

"If he ultimately goes through with it, then everyone from litigants who will bring cases in court to Congress can challenge that," he said. "Congress is not obligated to accept numbers that don't include all the people that are supposed to be included. In order for apportionment to work, the president has to deliver a count of the whole number of people in every state. If President Trump excludes certain people from the count, he hasn't delivered a sufficient report."

The issue is rushing a process that could hurt minority populations and skew the distribution of federal resources and political power for the next 10 years

"The bureau basically needed to spend 8½ months between counting in the field and doing all the data processing to produce numbers that would meet the basic constitutional and statutory requirements that the Census Bureau has to meet," Wolf said. "The administration has tried to crunch that down to about 4½ months, and it's just not possible to produce an adequate count with that kind of rushed timeline."

He added, "You could have a count that ostensibly includes everyone regardless of their citizenship status, and the quality may still be bad."