Our nation counts people because, in a democracy, people count. Everyone must matter for the system to work.
The United States Census is a critical tool for determining political representation and funding at the federal, state, and municipal levels. An accurate count of the American population every 10 years allows adjustments to be made to electoral districts to ensure the even representation of constituents in the U.S. House of Representatives and in state legislatures, based on population shifts that have occurred in the previous decade.
We should all want our government to have a Census count that gives an accurate picture of how many people live within our borders, and where. But that doesn’t mean that we all do want an accurate count.
The Supreme Court ruled yesterday that the Trump administration can pause the 2020 Census early, while the administration and parties arguing for an accurate count duke it out in federal appeals court. But with the deadline for collecting data at the end of this month, a pause really, in effect, means a stop.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor was the only member of the bench to dissent.
Here’s how we got to this point.
Counting the United States population—done every 10 years—was delayed due to COVID-19, so an extension to October 31 was granted (the original deadline was in August). Then, out of nowhere, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross moved the deadline up to September 30, saying that Trump needed preliminary figures by the statutory deadline of December 31 (the delayed data collection deadline had come with a delayed data delivery deadline of April 2021). The data collection deadline was moved back to October 31 by the courts, but thanks to the Supreme Court ruling, data collection ended yesterday, on October 13. Some Census workers have reported that their local operations are already closing up shop, realizing that data collection would not resume between now and October 31.
Now that the deadline to deliver preliminary counts is back to being at the end of this year, regardless of the outcome of the presidential election, Trump will have control over the process of transmitting the results to Congress by the statutory date of January 10, 2021, at which point the new Congress will begin the reapportionment of congressional seats. If the April deadline had held, that responsibility would have been granted to whoever won the White House on November 3.
Here’s the major problem with an inaccurate count: Undercounting the population won’t be uniform across different demographics. It primarily affects the enumeration of harder-to-count populations that are concentrated in Democratic-majority areas, including immigrants, people of color, and lower-income residents living in multi-family homes, depriving them of funding and representation.
Poor people and people of color are already being undercounted in this Census because Trump ordered that undocumented immigrants be left out of the count in 2020 (which goes against the constitutional mandate that anyone living on U.S. soil be counted). The Trump administration is embroiled in a separate Supreme Court case about this issue, which the administration is pushing the Court to argue in December, by which point they hope to have added Amy Coney Barrett to the bench.
As a coequal branch of government, Congress, specifically the next Congress, must exercise its own Constitutional prerogatives to undo as much damage as possible with the Census—it could start by passing legislation to change the statutory deadline for when Congress must receive completed Census data.