Trump Has One Last Chance to Meddle With Census Numbers

The count for the 2020 census is done. Despite the dangers of the pandemic and seismic shifts in the political landscape, the U.S. Census Bureau fulfilled its constitutional duty. Against the wishes of President Trump, the census questionnaire didn’t include a citizenship question.

But the task before the Census Bureau isn’t quite finished. Before it can ship the numbers off to federal and state governments, its statisticians must complete a monumental task of data processing—a standard yet exacting array of imputations, de-duplications, and other refinements. The Trump administration is leaning on the bureau to produce statistics that census experts worry could be used for highly partisan purposes. If Trump gets his way, the census count could give a boost to the GOP in the apportionment of districts for the House of Representatives, removing seats from urban areas in immigrant-rich states and reassigning them to rural parts of Whiter states.

The U.S. Supreme Court cleared the decks for the president on Dec. 18. It threw out a challenge to a July order in which Trump told the Census Bureau to send him two sets of numbers: the “whole number” of people in each state and a number minus undocumented immigrants, to be used for House apportionment. The high court didn’t decide the merits of the case, which was brought by 23 states and various immigrant rights groups. Instead, it declared in a 6–3 judgment that it wasn’t clear yet what the Trump administration planned to do.

That deferral gives the White House a narrow window to keep trying. If it gets two sets of numbers from the bureau, it could make both available to states and let them decide which to use, or it could just decide that the lower numbers are the official ones.

Last year, after the high court blocked the citizenship question, the White House took up the Census Bureau on an earlier offer to estimate the number of noncitizen residents using administrative records. One source the bureau might tap, the Citizens of Voting Age special tabulation, allows resolution down to the block group level. That’s census-ese for a dataset that looks at groupings of roughly 8 to 10 city blocks. But the White House may ask for datasets that count down to the individual block level, which would yield a much more detailed picture of ethnic and racial dividing lines (yet less accurate counts for redistricting).

“Before, block groups were so big that you could have a block group where part of it covered a minority neighborhood and part of it covered a nonminority neighborhood, and there was no way of splitting that up,” Robert Santos, vice president and chief methodologist for the Urban Institute and president-elect of the American Statistical Association, told Bloomberg in October. “By getting down to the block level, it will allow state legislatures to decide for themselves if they want to use citizenship counts rather than total population counts to create their state legislative boundaries.”

It’s unclear that sufficient administrative data exist to capture the number of unauthorized immigrants living in the U.S. Assuming the White House gets the data before Trump leaves office, “you can be sure there will be a subtraction” from the total population count, says Thomas Louis, professor emeritus for biostatistics at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. (The school has received significant funding from Michael Bloomberg, the majority owner of Bloomberg Businessweek’s parent company.) “Most people who know what kind of data are available to use for that subtraction think it’s not possible to do a very good job” at it, Louis says.

Back in April, the White House floated a proposal to extend the data processing deadline for the census to April 30, 2021. The Census Bureau set to work with that date in mind. Then, in June, the Trump administration inserted two political appointees into the bureau’s leadership, an unusual move that drew swift condemnation from statistical organizations and Democratic lawmakers. The next month, the White House abruptly reversed course on the deadlines for both the count and processing period. 

The odds are against the president. The Census Bureau has already stated that it can’t complete its report to the White House before Dec. 31. Even if the Trump administration does get the adjusted data in time, lawsuits are certain to follow. “If adjustments are made to the whole person count that the Census Bureau submits, like taking up guesstimates—it’s favorable to call them ‘guesstimates’—that’s going to lead to lots of litigation,” says Santos.

The House could even direct the clerk to delay the certification of the count, kicking the question to the Biden administration. Dec. 31 is only the deadline for House apportionment; counts for state redistricting aren’t due until March 31, well into President-elect Joe Biden’s term.

“The fact that the Census Bureau’s experts reportedly are telling the Commerce Secretary that they can’t produce acceptably accurate data for apportionment before December 31—and the likelihood that the bureau wouldn’t also be able to produce the estimates for undocumented immigrants by state—suggests that the president’s options could be shrinking,” says Terri Ann Lowenthal, a consultant and former staff director of the House census oversight subcommittee.

Census chaos may still serve the GOP in the long run. Populations considered hard to count only got harder to count in 2020, namely immigrants, American Indians, and people of color. Contagion fears, economic lockdowns, college campus closures, prison paroles: All of the ways the pandemic upended daily life served as strikes against the census. While the count is finished, the chaos isn’t over yet.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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