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Trump administration seeks months-long delay to complete 2020 census due to pandemic

The Trump administration is asking for a delay to complete the 2020 census because of the coronavirus.
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The Trump administration is asking Congress to give it four additional months to complete the 2020 Census, blaming the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Census Bureau had previously halted its in-person outreach because of the virus’ spread, but it had maintained it would still be able to meet its legal obligation to present results to the president and Congress by Dec. 31.

In a conference call with members of Congress Monday, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross asked for legislation giving the bureau an additional 120 days to present the results.

Field operations, such as going door to door to collect information for those who did not respond to the census online or by mail, are now scheduled to resume June 1 and would last until Oct. 31, according to the bureau, which falls under the Commerce Department.

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That means rather than have the data ready by Dec. 31, the bureau would need until April 30, 2021. Data used to redraw the country’s congressional district boundaries would be delivered to the states no later than July 31, 2021, rather than in March.

The existing deadlines are set in federal law, and it will take an act of Congress to move them.

President Trump on Monday said the bureau would need a “major delay” and questioned if 120 days was long enough. “Obviously they can’t be doing very much right now,” Trump said at a briefing on the coronavirus. “How can you possibly be knocking on doors for a long period of time now?”

The 2020 census was already unusually politically fraught after the administration attempted to include a question about citizenship on the form, a move that was ultimately rejected by the Supreme Court. Critics said the effort was an attempt to suppress census response rates in blue states with large immigrant communities, like California.

Democrats said they would review the bureau’s request, but would also want to see detailed information supporting the need for a delay.

“The oversight committee will carefully examine the administration’s request, but we need more information that the administration has been unwilling to provide,” said Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.), chairwoman of the Committee on Oversight and Reform, in a statement. “The director of the Census Bureau was not even on today’s call, and the administration has refused for weeks to allow him to brief members of our committee, despite repeated requests.”

William Frey, a demographer for the Brookings Institution, said it makes practical sense to ask for a delay now, so Congress has time to consider it.

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“It’s a fairly big deal to do this. But on the other hand, we’re in a fairly unusual situation,” Frey said.

For the first time this year, people can fill out the census online, and so far 48% of households have responded, according to the bureau. But millions of Americans don’t respond, prompting the need for a half million census workers to make in-person visits nationwide to ensure an accurate count.

But door-to-door canvassing is difficult to imagine at a time when governors in most states have ordered nonessential workers to stay home to slow the spread of the coronavirus that has more than 500,000 positive U.S. cases already.

“People are pretty likely to be home, [so] it seems like a good opportunity to do the census. But it seems unlikely that people are going to feel safe doing that [door-knocking],” Menlo College Political Scientist Melissa Michelson said. “It’s another reminder that we are not living in normal times and a lot of things that would happen this year are not going to happen.”

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There is some precedent to a delay. More than 100 years ago, the census director blamed the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, along with World War I and other things, for a five-month delay in delivering the results of the 1920 census.

The once-every-decade count of the country’s population is mandated by the Constitution and the results are used to redraw congressional districts so that each represents about the same number of people. A delay in the results could have a cascading effect, as they are also used to redraw state legislative districts, city council boundaries and even school board seats ahead of the 2022 election.

Michelson said a delay in providing the data to states would compress the time left to redraw those boundaries, and to litigate the court battles that occur in some states over whether the lines were fairly drawn, all before the 2022 primary elections begin.

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The decision could have a pronounced impact on California, where a 14-member citizen’s redistricting commission will draw boundaries for congressional and legislative districts for just the second time since voters wrested the job from the California Legislature in 2008. By law, the panel — consisting of Democrats, Republicans and unaffiliated voters chosen through a lengthy public vetting process — must base its work on detailed census data.

In 2011, the citizens panel held extensive hearings across California seeking public input on how best to draw legislative and congressional districts with an eye toward fair representation. The commission’s final deliberations on the maps came in late July 2011.

But under the new proposed census schedule, that’s the month in 2021 that states would first receive the data. That delay could push the California commission’s work dangerously close to the 2022 election cycle and could potentially bleed into the time frame in which candidates file paperwork to run for those positions.

Times staff writer John Myers in Sacramento contributed to this report


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