Since August, the bureau had been scrambling to finish the count and process the data in time for Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to deliver it to the president by the statutory deadline of Dec. 31. Last month, bureau officials said they were doing their best to produce the data as close to that date as possible, and internal documents have suggested they were aiming for early January. Delivering the numbers by the end of the year or early 2021 would mean condensing the normally five-month processing period down to around half that amount of time.
But on Thursday, Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham issued a statement saying “certain processing anomalies” had been discovered during post-count analysis, adding, “I am directing the Census Bureau to utilize all resources available to resolve this as expeditiously as possible.”
The bureau declined to confirm or deny that the estimated delivery date for state population counts had changed, and the Commerce Department did not reply to a request for comment.
Dillingham said such anomalies had occurred in past censuses, and census experts told The Washington Post that finding and correcting them is a normal part of the post-count analysis.
“That’s why the bureau builds five months into the schedule for data processing,” said Terri Ann Lowenthal, a former staff director of the House census oversight subcommittee. “Glitches are bound to arise in such a complex operation, and the bureau needs time to fix those mistakes. If it doesn’t, the quality and accuracy of the final numbers are compromised. And that would raise questions about whether the results should be used for various purposes, including, in the first instance, congressional apportionment.”
The delay in delivering the data means the government will miss a deadline, mandated by Congress, that Justice Department lawyers had argued in court could not be missed.
It also means that, unless the administration somehow persuades the bureau to reverse its stance, the White House will fail in its latest effort to manipulate the 2020 Census in ways that could reduce political power and federal funding in immigrant-heavy jurisdictions.
Soon after Trump took office, his administration started trying to add a citizenship question to the survey, which experts said could scare immigrants away and result in an inaccurate count; the question was blocked by the Supreme Court.
When the coronavirus pandemic hit just as the 2020 count was getting underway, bureau officials requested more time to complete it. But after Congress neglected to approve a four-month delay, and after Trump in July announced plans to try to exclude undocumented immigrants, the bureau said it would compress its schedule to try to deliver state population counts to the president by the end of the year.
The administration has not said how it planned to identify and count undocumented immigrants, for which there is no reliable list and no precedent in U.S. history. If the nation’s estimated 10.5 million to 12 million undocumented immigrants were excluded from apportionment, it would probably increase the number of House seats held by Republicans.
Trump’s plan sparked several legal challenges, and three federal courts have ruled against it. The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments on it Nov. 30; it is unclear how the delays communicated Wednesday will affect that case.
News of the bureau’s data processing issues came as a surprise to Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.), chairwoman of the House Oversight Committee, which has jurisdiction over census matters.
“Unfortunately, the Committee was not informed about these anomalies before they became public,” she said in a sharply worded letter to Dillingham on Thursday afternoon. “To the contrary, the Census Bureau cancelled several weekly staff briefings on the status of the 2020 Census over the past month. In addition, when Committee staff requested a briefing earlier today about these new developments, they were refused.”
Maloney added that in recent months the committee has been “forced to obtain information from whistleblowers who have produced internal documents that have been withheld for no valid reason.” She asked Dillingham to produce documents related to data processing concerns and scheduling by Tuesday.
The bureau did not immediately respond to a question regarding the letter.
The bureau’s inability to meet the deadline could result in a crisis if the Commerce Department refuses to accept it, said Vanita Gupta, president and chief executive of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.
“The bureau has been saying this pretty consistently, through the spring and summer and now . . . that they need more time,” she said. “Otherwise it sounds like there’s going to be an impasse between what the experts and scientific staff at the bureau think is possible and what the Trump administration wants and is putting political pressure on them to complete in order to have the data on their watch.”
The administration has added an unprecedented number of political appointees to the bureau this year, raising concerns that they could push career staffers there to hew to a White House agenda.
“They may try to fire some [career officials], or they may try to wrest data improperly out of their hands,” Gupta said. “But I don’t think that’s going to fly in a new administration.”