The current deadline for replying to the 2020 census is October 31. However, that may change depending on the outcome of a lawsuit the Trump administration is currently battling in federal court.
Earlier this week, a federal judge in California temporarily prevented the Trump administration from ending counting efforts on September 30, a month earlier than the government had requested earlier, as doing so would likely affect the accuracy of the count. Instead, U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh extended the October 31 deadline to give the Census Bureau more time to gather responses online, by mail, and by knocking on doors in under-counted areas.
But on Friday evening, the Trump administration urged the Ninth Circuit to suspend Koh's decision immediately, arguing that the September 30 deadline must be met for Congress to come up with final population figures by December 31, as was the case up until now Federal law is required by December 31. These population numbers are used to determine how many representatives each state will have in Congress in 2021 – and to redraw congressional districts.
Koh had also waived that December 31st, suggesting that the census results could be presented to Congress at a later date. But the Trump administration told the Ninth Circle on Friday that it did not have the authority to do so.
If the government's appeal is successful, an abbreviated census could lead to inaccuracies and undercounts in historically difficult to count populations – including color communities, immigrants and those living in rural areas, Census Bureau officials and former directors have warned.
It's just the latest complication in the most chaotic and politically charged census in recent history.
The Census Bureau had to cease operations for two months at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, resume counting efforts in June and seek to make up for lost time. The ongoing forest fires on the west coast and a historic hurricane season in the south have also created hurdles to complete the census in the affected areas. And President Donald Trump has tried to exclude unauthorized immigrants from the census count, which is used for redistribution. This could lower return rates in immigrant communities and undermine their political power.
Why cutting the counting effort could affect the accuracy of the census
Much is at stake in the census: it not only dictates representation in Congress and redistribution, but also determines the amount of federal funding for health care, food stamps, highways and transportation, education, social housing, and unemployment insurance and public safety – programs, among others. An undercount could diminish the resources and political power of communities for the next decade.
Trump administration officials knew that cutting short census operations could lead to census inaccuracies and what that could mean for historically difficult to count populations. Internal Census Bureau notices published in court records show that career officials have warned that a shortened census period would "result in a census showing serious data quality deficiencies unacceptable for a constitutionally mandated national activity." But the administration decided anyway to move on with their plan.
Current response rates indicate that census participants actually need more time to record. As of September 25, the current nationwide self-response rate was 66.3 percent, slightly below the 2010 rate of 66.5 percent and the 2000 rate of 67.4 percent. At the local level, however, response rates can vary widely. For example, in parts of Texas along the Mexican border, the self-response rate is still 15 percent or less.
In order to record households that have not reported themselves, census workers have Relying on alternative strategies for counting people, such as: on reports from their neighbors, which are not always correct.
The office may also attempt to use administrative records, including Social Security and IRS data, to fill in the gaps in responses. That could be a problem – households that are difficult to count are exactly the kind of households for which the federal government lacks reliable administrative records. For example, unauthorized immigrants do not have Social Security numbers and can rely on a cash economy without filing taxes with the IRS (though Many of them raise taxes).
Reliance on such methods could also result in housing units being classified as vacant when people live there, especially if a census taker is unable to reach them due to factors such as natural disasters and does not have the opportunity – or time – to track it.
All of this can lead to inaccuracies and undercounts that deprive communities of political representation and the federal dollars they deserve.