The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Congress must intervene to make sure Trump doesn’t sabotage the census

Census worker Ken Leonard wears a mask as he mans a census walk-up counting site set up for Hunt County in Greenville, Tex., on Friday. (LM Otero/AP)

Vanita Gupta is president and chief executive officer of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

The Trump administration is doing everything it can to sabotage the 2020 Census so that it reflects an inaccurate and less diverse portrait of America. Its latest effort involves quietly compressing the census timeline to all but guarantee a massive undercount. Congress must intervene to make certain this does not happen.

Rushing census operations, as the administration is attempting to do, ensures the bureau won’t count millions of people — especially those hit hardest by the pandemic. It will leave the country with inaccurate numbers that deprive communities of resources, political power and the federal assistance necessary to recover from the pandemic for the next 10 years.

This move is part of a series of administration actions whose intent is unmistakable: to suppress minority representation and gain political advantage. First the administration tried to add a citizenship question to the census. Having been rebuffed by the Supreme Court, it issued an unconstitutional order last month instructing officials to exclude undocumented residents from being counted for purposes of apportioning congressional districts. Now this.

The 2020 Census is the largest, most complex population count in the nation’s history — one made more difficult by the emergence of covid-19 and the Trump administration’s ongoing efforts to undermine a decade of careful planning by the Census Bureau. Because the census determines funding for resources such as hospitals and health care, public schools, and infrastructure — as well as the number of seats in Congress each state receives and how legislative districts are drawn — it is imperative to get the count right.

That takes time, especially in the midst of a pandemic. To achieve full participation, the bureau first asks people to respond to the census on their own — known as “self-response.” Then, it goes door-to-door to households still unreported. Often those households include immigrants, people of color and low-income people. But the administration is hellbent on scaring marginalized communities away from census participation.

Unsurprisingly, early data indicate trouble. The bureau is poised to begin door-to-door outreach with the lowest self-response rate in history. As of Monday, the national response rate was 62.9 percent, compared to the 2010 response rate of 63.5 percent. Alabama hovers at 60.6 percent, and similarly low numbers can be found in states as geographically and demographically diverse as Maine (55 percent), Alaska (49.4 percent) and Arizona (59.7 percent). The count also lags dangerously behind in rural and tribal communities, as well as in big cities, particularly in communities of color. This means the bureau has to count more households than ever before in person.

A successful 2020 Census requires effective follow-up with those who did not respond on their own, and engagement with communities that are harder to reach. Given the data, census takers will need to collect more responses in person than ever before. Instead, the Trump administration is moving to deny it the time needed to do that effectively.

Back in April, because of covid-related disruptions, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross asked Congress for extra time to report the head count for apportioning congressional districts, pushing the deadline back from Dec. 31 to the following April. The administration agreed. Now, however, the administration is abandoning its support for that delay.

At the same time, it has also cut short the door-knocking phase by a full month, saying that operation must be completed by Sept. 30. Door-to-door outreach is essential to reach communities of color and other marginalized groups — exactly the people who Trump wants to leave behind. The House-passed version of the latest relief measure includes an extension of the head count deadline. That was not included, however, in the Senate Republican proposal. It is imperative that the final package include an extension.

Denying the Census Bureau adequate time to navigate covid-19 makes clear that the president wants to decide who counts and who does not in the United States. In the event that Trump does not serve a second term, cutting the census short would ensure that decisions about congressional apportionment are made under his presidency.

By its actions, the administration is forcing the bureau to neglect millions of people of color, rural residents, people with disabilities and others by disrupting the modified timeline crafted by experts. At a recent press briefing, Census Bureau Associate Director Albert Fontenot stated unequivocally that due to covid-19, it is too late for the bureau to finish census operations properly and report initial results by the December deadline. Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham testified before Congress that he wasn’t informed of the president’s order to exclude undocumented immigrants from apportionment until he read about it in the press.

The census is foundational to democracy. And, when done right, it is the nation’s best reflection of “We, the People.” No one, not even the president, should get away with undermining a complete and accurate count for partisan gain. Failure to complete the census well will fail all of America at a perilous moment. The 2020 Census must do what the Constitution demands: Count all people.

Read more:

The Post’s View: Excluding undocumented immigrants from the census is doomed to fail, but Trump is all in

The Post’s View: Trump’s push to spoil the census — and make Democrats disappear

Paul Waldman: Trump tries one more time to rig the census

Leah Litman: Trump lied to the Supreme Court. His new census order proves it.

The Post’s View: The census is coming. The government is not ready.