Oct 22, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Mayors plan multifront attack on census shutdown

Illustration of rows of tally marks
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

A growing number of mayors are banding together to fight what they consider to be an inaccurate and abruptly curtailed 2020 census, using an arsenal of legal, legislative and congressional efforts.

Why it matters: The outcome may determine whether President Trump or Joe Biden controls the redistricting process, which governs everything from congressional representation and redistricting to funding for schools and Head Start.

Driving the news: Mayors from both parties — under the aegis of the U.S. Conference of Mayors — are putting on a full-court press to extend the Census Bureau's data collection work (which ended Oct. 15, per the president's order) and extend the data-processing work to next April.

  • They're backing a lawsuit filed by the National Urban League against Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross that sought the return to an Oct. 31 deadline for data collection.
  • So far it has gone up to the Supreme Court, which sided with the Trump administration and allowed the count to stop early — but the case still hasn't been heard on its merits.
  • But their efforts may be quixotic, as there's no precedent for a census count being reopened.

The mayors are also lobbying members of Congress to take up their cause, supporting bills to extend the census deadlines.

  • They're joining civic leaders and advocacy groups across the country who have filed other lawsuits against the Census Bureau.
  • The Supreme Court will hear arguments on Nov. 30 in New York's attempt to block President Trump from excluding unauthorized immigrants from Congressional redistricting calculations.

"It is more clear than ever that there is still an effort to interfere with an accurate count," said Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, adding that she saw political motives at work.

The big picture: The mayors' concern is that people of color, indigenous people, poor people, young people and undocumented immigrants will be even more undercounted than usual.

  • Many of those categories tend to be urban dwellers, so omitting them hurts city finances and representation. (People in rural areas tend to be undercounted, too.)
  • They say that census workers were stretched so thin they weren't able to knock on doors six times to seek a response, as they're normally supposed to.
  • And they're dismayed by the heavy reliance on a protocol that's new this year: the use of federal administrative records — from the IRS, Medicare, Medicaid, and the Social Security Administration — to fill in many blanks.

Where it stands: At a news conference Wednesday, Census Bureau officials described the many obstacles they faced this year — the pandemic, hurricanes and wildfires — but said they finished the 2020 census on Oct. 15 and will "deliver complete and accurate state population counts as close to the December 31, 2020 statutory deadline as possible."

  • Those counts — which typically take five months — will take two-and-a-half months this year.
  • Asked how the bureau could achieve this, Al Fontenot, associate director of Decennial Census Programs at the U.S. Census Bureau, said, "Technology has advanced over the past 10 years. Computers are faster, technology is faster, and a lot of the processes can happen faster."

The bottom line: The Census Bureau says it has accounted for 99.98% of all addresses in the nation.

  • But longtime census consultant Terri Ann Lowenthal draws air quotes around "accounted for." She notes that the bureau "didn't say counted. They didn't say enumerated. They said 'accounted for.' "
  • "The percent of housing units counted, by itself, tells us nothing about the quality and accuracy of the data collected or the overall accuracy of the census."
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