US Government Ends Census Data Collection

by Sonali Muthukrishnan

National/World Editor

The U.S. government closed the 2020 census data collection earlier than expected, on Oct. 15, with the support of the Supreme Court. The Census Bureau reported that it collected data from 99.99 percent of the nation’s households, but this data may contain inaccuracies. Thirty percent of households did not directly participate in the census, instead, the Bureau used less accurate collection measures, due to the shortened time frame.The Trump administration’s handling of the census raised questions among many Americans and experts due to its potentially problematic effects. 

The first U.S. Census occurred in 1790, recording the number of American citizens living in each state as well as their demographics. The census determines how the American government allocates its funding for the next 10 years, the number of congressional seats awarded to each state, Electoral College seats, and the boundaries of local voting districts. Typically, the Census Bureau collects its data through the official census website, paper forms, door-to-door visits, and telephone calls. Ultimately, the census is supposed to provide non-partisan data collection for the government.

Many political experts fear that the early end of the census will further worsen the undercounts of racial minorities, young people, and poor people because they are the most difficult groups for census workers to reach. It may also mean that White House officials will have more opportunity to manipulate population numbers to benefit their Administration in the House of Representatives and local and state governments. 

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the government extended the census deadline to Oct. 31. The virus forced the Census Bureau to suspend field data collection in March, losing valuable data collection time. This year, door-to-door visits were also limited due to the public health crisis, posing a massive problem as workers usually employed this tactic to make contact with otherwise hard-to-reach groups. In August, Commerce Secretary Wilbur L. Ross Jr. suddenly moved the deadline to Sep. 30, with Dec. 31 acting as the deadline for reporting the data to President Trump. Ross stated that the extension was necessary because otherwise the transaction would not follow the law. However, the decision faced strong resistance. 

Critics felt that Ross’s choice would undermine the accuracy of the crucial count. California U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh ruled that the national count could continue through the original Oct. 31 date to allow for a more accurate count. However, the Supreme Court granted the Justice Department’s emergency request to suspend Koh’s decision, regardless of the Department’s apparent contradiction to their previous assessment stating they would not be able to complete the census report by Dec. 31. Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissented with the majority, stating, “Even a fraction of a percent of the Nation’s 140 million households amounts to hundreds of thousands of people left uncounted.”

In previous years, the census counted both citizens and noncitizens in its data, regardless of their immigration status, but the Trump administration is aiming to challenge this tradition in the 2020 census. In July, they announced they wanted to remove illegal immigrants from the census data, which would exclude millions of people, likely shifting some Democratic state seats to Republican states. Critics of this policy have pointed out that the Constitution requires that the government determine congressional districts by “counting the whole number of persons in each state,” not just citizens. 

The US Supreme Court agreed to a quick review of the President’s attempt, hearing oral arguments on the case starting on Nov. 30. On Oct. 22, a Californian federal panel barred the Census Bureau from giving the White House a count of unauthorized immigrants in America. The ruling would not prevent the bureau from acting, however it may give the Supreme Court more motivation to turn down the President’s plan when the government appeals the ruling to the high court. 

Regardless of how the Supreme Court rules, it is unclear how Trump plans to exclude illegal immigrants, as there was no question about citizenship on the 2020 census. 

(Sources: NY Times, AARP, NPR, ABC, CNN, US Census Bureau)

Photo courtesy US Census Bureau

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