By Julia Purdy
As of Oct. 2, Census workers received a notification that the Census data collection will continue through October as originally planned. Numerous lawsuits had been filed against Steven Dillingham, the Trump-appointed director of the U.S. Census Bureau, and the Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, its parent agency, when the original Oct. 30 date was scuttled, cutting data collection back one full month to Sept. 30. In response to a temporary injunction handed down Sept. 24, which the Trump administration promptly appealed, Secretary Ross reset a “target date” of Oct. 5.
The new ruling, from the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California-San Jose Division, affirmatively orders the original Oct. 30 date to be restored, calling Ross’ action an “egregious violation.”
Plaintiffs include cities, counties, civil rights watchdog organizations, the Navajo Nation, the Gila River Indian Community and others. The fear has been that by shortening the data collection period, segments of the U.S. population would be excluded.
Past experience indicates there are always hard-to-reach respondents for many reasons, and existing population statistics show that these are typically low-income, homeless, institutionalized or dislocated by natural disasters, as in Puerto Rico or California. It was felt strongly that these groups, often in need of the kind of federal assistance that the Decennial Census may support, would be undercounted.
The plaintiffs had already sought and won an earlier stay and preliminary injunction against abridging the in-person collection period. That decision, handed down Sept. 24, cited the fact that the administration’s revision cut the original timeline from 71.5 weeks to 49.5 weeks.
In addition, the judge specifically referenced President Trump’s memorandum calling for the exclusion of undocumented immigrants from the population count that would determine district reapportionment for representation in Congress — running exactly counter to the constitutional requirement calling for a count of the “total population” regardless of condition or wealth.
Citing the Trump administration’s flouting of her Sept. 24 ruling, U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh on Thursday Sept. 30 issued a new decision that once again preliminarily enjoins the Census Bureau and the Dept. of Commerce from imposing their short deadlines. A memo had already gone out to all Census foot-soldiers giving Oct. 5 as the final date for field work, which she ordered to be retracted in writing. In addition, Director Dillingham must “unequivocally” confirm compliance — in writing by Oct. 5 — with the court’s order.
The decision was accompanied by a sharp and explicit rebuke: “Defendants’ dissemination of erroneous information; lurching from one hasty, unexplained plan to the next; and unlawful sacrifices of completeness and accuracy of the 2020 Census are upending the status quo, violating the Injunction Order, and undermining the credibility of the Census Bureau and the 2020 Census. This must stop.”
Each injunction order provides a hard-hitting backstory for her decisions. Included are a detailed account of normal Decennial Census operations and the disruptions caused this year by, first, the eruption of the pandemic and, second, the need to compress the timeline to meet the new deadline and deliver likely faulty or incomplete data, which would render the entire project useless.
Now that Vermont’s response rate sits at 99.9%, Vermont enumerators are being approached to volunteer for field data collection in low-response states such as Alabama and Montana.
Restoration of the Oct. 30 deadline will give the Census the time needed to accurately count America’s population in all communities.