The Trump administration’s request to halt the 2020 U.S. Census was granted by the Supreme Court Tuesday evening. The once-a-decade count determines the number of representatives each state will have in Congress, and could potentially dilute the power of Democrats who often represent the majority in urban and densely populated areas.
According to a press release by the Census Bureau, as of Oct. 12, the count was 99.9% complete, so concerns about the count being incomplete or inaccurate may be overblown. But what’s more important now are the accuracy checks used by the Census to report its information back to the government.
The census was originally supposed to be fully complete by Oct. 5, but has experienced unprecedented challenges in collecting data due to the coronavirus combined with legal wrangling over when the information gathering should end. The deadline was pushed to the end of October.
The Trump administration challenged this extension in federal court, asking for a Sept. 30 completion date, ostensibly to speed up the counting efforts so that the final data could be presented to the president well in advance of the Dec. 31 deadline. Those in favor of a later deadline say speeding up the process would affect the counting safeguards in place and could result in reporting incorrect statistics.
Now with the Supreme Court’s ruling, the 2020 census remains on hold while the battle for a deadline to turn in the data continues.
Even with the data collection over, there’s likely enough time for the Census Bureau to meet its Dec. 31 deadline for submitting their numbers to the president, who will then determine the number of congressional seats for each state. This gives Trump the ability to decide how to allocate the number of future elected officials in each state, even if he doesn’t win the November presidential election—and could create an unfair advantage for Republicans.
Why a Thorough Census Count Matters
Typically, the Census Bureau finishes gathering data by early fall so it can analyze the information and present its findings in an end-of-the-year report.
Proponents of extending the Census deadline say it’s the only way to obtain an accurate snapshot of the nation and make appropriate decisions, not only when it comes to the size of a state’s representation in the House but also to determine how hundreds of billions of dollars in federal funding are allocated to various state and local programs. These programs have a big impact on ordinary Americans, and include:
- School lunch programs
- Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)
- Section 8 housing
- Highway planning and construction
- Fire departments
Politically, the census numbers determine both the number of seats each state will have in the House of Representatives and also delineate congressional and state legislative districts in a process known as apportionment.
Part of the tussle over the end date for the 2020 Census data collection was because of President Trump’s efforts to have the count exclude undocumented immigrants. Trump issued a presidential memorandum in July stating that those who did not immigrate to the U.S. via the legally required channels will not be counted as part of the Census so that their presence would not “be rewarded with greater representation in the House of Representatives.”
Critics said that excluding undocumented immigrants, combined with a shorter census timeline, would result in an undercount of populations in harder-to-reach rural areas and densely populated low-income and urban communities. This could result in underfunding of essential programs like those mentioned above and underrepresentation of elected officials in those districts.
A federal court in New York struck down the president’s memo on Sept. 10, saying that it was a violation of the law not to include unauthorized immigrants, who count as people living in a state.
“The Presidential Memorandum violates the statute governing apportionment because, so long as they reside in the United States, illegal aliens qualify as ‘persons in’ a ‘State,'” the judges wrote.
If the lower courts ultimately strike down the Trump administration’s request, which would mean delivering the Census Bureau data after the Dec. 31 deadline. Any redistricting would likely be determined after the election by the then-president.
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