2020 census

Congressional Democrats Need to Stop the Census Power Grab

Census director Steven Dillingham. Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

At a time when Donald Trump seems to be advancing theories of an imperial presidency in every direction, his most audacious gambit may be disguised as a bureaucratic necessity, as NPR has reported:

The U.S. Census Bureau is ending all counting efforts for the 2020 census on Sept. 30, a month sooner than previously announced, the bureau’s director confirmed Monday in a statement. That includes critical door-knocking efforts and collecting responses onlineover the phone and by mail …

With roughly 4 out of 10 households nationwide yet to be counted, and already delayed by the coronavirus pandemic, the bureau now has less than two months left to try to reach people of color, immigrants, renters, rural residents and other members of historically undercounted groups who are not likely to fill out a census form on their own.

Gee, what a coincidence. These “historically undercounted groups” overlap heavily with (a) demographic categories that lean heavily Democratic (except for the “rural residents”) and (b) the undocumented immigrants the administration has (without legal sanction) told the Census Bureau to exclude from the 2020 count for purposes of reapportioning congressional seats. It would appear the administration has found a roundabout way of evading the stop sign the Supreme Court imposed on its efforts to use a citizenship question to frighten marginalized communities into not responding to the census: The Census workers just won’t get around to finding them.

Keep in mind that the decennial Census not only drives reapportionment and redistricting of federal and state legislative offices but also the distribution of public funds from myriad programs. Undercounting “those people” is immensely useful to the long-term Republican project of hanging on to as much power as possible despite representing a shrinking minority of Americans.

The excuse for the abrupt stoppage of Census efforts provides a guide to the best way to reverse it:

[D]uring a hearing last week before the House Oversight and Reform Committee, Dillingham signaled a shift in plans by telling members of Congress that “the Census Bureau and others really want us to proceed as rapidly as possible.”

The bureau also asked Congress to push back by four months the legal deadline of Dec. 31 for reporting the latest state population counts to the president. Delaying that deadline would allow the bureau to keep counting through Oct. 31 to “ensure the completeness and accuracy of the 2020 Census,” Dillingham and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said in a statement released in April.

Whatever Dillingham and Ross said a few months ago, it’s clear Trump and his congressional allies have resisted any effort to give Census workers the time to finish their job without undercounting tens of millions of people, as the New York Times notes:

Federal law requires the Census Bureau to send population totals to the president by Dec. 31 of every census year. But the pandemic forced census officials in April to rewrite that timeline, pushing delivery of population totals to April 2021. The House approved the new deadline in May, but the Republican-controlled Senate has not followed suit, apparently at Mr. Trump’s behest.

So the quickest and surest way to stop the Census power grab would be for congressional Democratic negotiators to make a delay in the statutory Census deadline a burning line in the sand they will defend at all costs. Trump and his Republicans need a new stimulus bill desperately, if only to get another round of those $1,200 checks out to middle-class voters. They shouldn’t be allowed to short-circuit a crucially important Census count on the phony grounds that Congress wouldn’t give them time to do it right.

Congressional Democrats Need to Stop the Census Power Grab