The administration had been pushing the bureau to deliver state population counts and a tally of undocumented immigrants to the president by late December or early January. But in a court hearing Monday and a legal filing on Tuesday, Justice Department lawyers said recently discovered anomalies in the data mean the counts won’t be ready until after Feb. 9.
At a case management conference before U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh of the Northern District of California, Justice Department attorney John Coghlan said the latest anomalies were discovered Monday. He called the delivery date a “moving target,” adding, “These kinds of estimates continue to move and evolve on a daily basis.”
The new anomalies join at least 15 that were identified last month and affect more than 1 million census records. The statutory deadline for delivering state population totals to the president was Dec. 31, but the coronavirus pandemic delayed the 2020 count, causing Census Bureau officials to request more time to complete collection and processing.
In November, bureau officials told the Commerce Department that the count would not be completed until late January or early February. But since then, the bureau had publicly and repeatedly said it was trying to deliver the data as close to the original deadline as it could, raising the possibility that it could happen before Trump left office.
Court challenges to the 2020 Census began years ago, after Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross announced plans to add a citizenship question and then backtracked following a Supreme Court ruling.
Decennial census data, which normally takes five months to process post-count, is used to divvy up congressional seats — a process called apportionment — and determines federal funding and state redistricting for the next 10 years. Finishing by Dec. 31 would have meant cutting processing time in half, in a census that faced more challenges than usual because of coronavirus delays, natural disasters, and litigation and uncertainty over its end date.
“The Census Bureau clearly needs more time to ensure the most accurate state population counts for apportionment possible,” said Terri Ann Lowenthal, a former staff director of the House census oversight subcommittee. “Even relatively small mistakes in the counting process could affect which states get the final seats in the House, if the bureau doesn’t fix those errors.”
If undocumented immigrants were excluded from state population totals, California, Florida and Texas would each end up with one less congressional seat than they would have been awarded based on population change alone, the Pew Research Center estimates. And Alabama, Minnesota and Ohio would each hold on to a seat that they would have lost if apportionment were based only on total population change.
But no complete tallies of undocumented immigrants exist, and it was never clear how the government planned to act on Trump’s desire to identify, count and exclude undocumented immigrants.
However, Lowenthal cautioned on Wednesday that despite the latest projections, the door may not be completely closed on the president’s plan.
“President Trump could still try to pressure the bureau to rush the process, skip steps that would help ensure accurate results, and give Secretary Ross what essentially is incomplete data for apportionment before he leaves office on January 20,” she said. “It’s hard to say with certainty that the current president won’t try to manipulate the process in the closing days of his term. Hopefully, cooler, objective heads will prevail, though.”