Last month, when the U.S. Census Bureau abruptly announced that its field operations would wrap up on September 30 — a month earlier than previously scheduled — experts feared that the move would result in errors or a potential undercount of the population in the United States. According to a leaked Census Bureau document sent to members of Congress and obtained by NBC News, those concerns were not unfounded.
The document, sent to the House Oversight Committee, warns that the September deadline could lead to “serious errors” that could undermine the $15.6 billion operation. “A compressed review period creates risk for serious errors not being discovered in the data — thereby significantly decreasing data quality,” the document states. “Additionally, serious errors discovered in the data may not be fixed — due to lack of time to research and understand the root cause or to re-run and re-review one or multiple state files.” As the document attests, the Census Bureau will have less time than in previous years to run through the information: While the 2000 census took 185 days to process, this year staffers will only have 92 days to do so.
Considering the administration’s treatment of the once-in-a-decade undertaking, “serious errors” appeared to have been the aspiration all along. After the Supreme Court ruled that the Department of Commerce’s attempt to put a citizenship question on the document was too sloppy to go forward, there have been several efforts to block people from filling out the form or to skew its subsequent districting in Republicans’ favor for the coming decade.
Despite the elaborate schemes, so far the administration’s most successful attempt to undermine the census has been its simplest. “This is really an insidious ploy to have cities that have large immigrant communities, in particular, to lose congressional representation and to have that representation moved to red Republican areas,” New York City census director Julie Menin said last month when the new timeline was announced. And in some cities with significant immigrant populations, field operations are ending even earlier. Door-knocking, a process critical to the proper representation of undercounted groups, will end on September 18 in San Diego, despite the logical necessity of extending census groundwork during a pandemic. “It seems to me that this operation should take more time, not less, than in the previous censuses,” Terri Ann Lowenthal, a former staff director of the House Oversight Subcommittee for the Census, told NPR.