Cities and Counties Join Lawsuit Challenging Shortened Census Timeline

A 2020 census letter mailed to a U.S. resident, is shown in Detroit, Sunday, April 5, 2020.

A 2020 census letter mailed to a U.S. resident, is shown in Detroit, Sunday, April 5, 2020. AP Photo/Paul Sancya


Connecting state and local government leaders

The Trump administration earlier this month walked back plans to extend the count due to the coronavirus.

Local governments and civil rights groups filed a lawsuit in a California federal district court on Tuesday, challenging the Trump administration’s decision earlier this month to shorten the time frame for completing the census.

In April, as the coronavirus was in the early stages of gripping the nation, the Census Bureau put forward a revised plan for completing the once-a-decade count, extending data collection until Oct. 31, 2020. As part of the delay, door-knocking to conduct follow-ups with households that hadn’t yet responded to the census shifted from the May to July time frame, to August to October.

But in early August, the Census Bureau and Commerce Department, which houses the agency, announced a new plan, shortening the deadline for data collection by a month, to Sept. 30.

The bureau also committed to reporting data to the president by Dec. 31 that is used to apportion congressional seats. Earlier this year, the agency sought permission from Congress to extend that deadline to April 30, 2021 and to extend a deadline for providing data that states use for redistricting from March 30, 2021 to July 31, 2021.

House Democrats approved shifting the deadlines as part of a broader coronavirus relief bill, but the Republican-controlled Senate has not done so. A Census Bureau schedule current as of Monday says a plan is still “in development” for when to deliver the redistricting data.

The lawsuit argues that the shorter timeline for completing the census ignores delays the virus has caused and “threatens a massive undercount of the country’s communities of color and the municipalities, cities, counties, and states where they live.”

“The federal government’s attempt to rush the census count poses a grave threat to all the vital functions that rely on census data,” the suit adds.

That data is used to apportion, or divvy-up, seats to each state in the House of Representatives, to draw electoral districts and to guide the distribution of billions of dollars in federal funds each year for programs in areas like food assistance, health care and education.

“We’re suing to block the Trump administration from unconstitutionally abandoning a plan to obtain an accurate census in the midst of a devastating pandemic,” Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer said in a statement. 

“From political representation to crucial public funding, every L.A. resident has so much riding on a full, fair and complete count,” he added. “The administration’s abrupt, inexplicable and unlawful reversal would harm Angelenos for the next decade.”

In an email, a Census Bureau spokesperson said the agency does not comment on active litigation and that it is “focused on conducting a complete and accurate 2020 Census.”

Along with the sparring now unfolding over the census timeline, President Trump ignited a controversy in July when he issued a directive that aims to exclude people who are not in the U.S. legally from the tally used to apportion House seats.

“The Trump administration has openly worked to drive down minority participation in the Census to give less representation to more diverse states, and now is rushing the deadline so that the data can be manipulated to exclude immigrants, in defiance of the Constitution, before legislative districts are drawn," National Urban League President and CEO Marc Morial said.

Local governments that signed onto Tuesday's lawsuit include Harris County, Texas, where Houston is located, King County, Washington, which is home to Seattle, and three California cities: Los Angeles, Salinas and San Jose.

Advocacy groups backing the suit include the National Urban League, League of Women Voters and Black Alliance for Just Immigration.

They’re asking the court to declare that the Trump administration’s abandonment of the extended deadlines is unconstitutional under the Constitution’s Enumeration Clause and unlawful under a law known as the Administrative Procedure Act, and to force the administration to reinstate the plan giving the Census Bureau more time for the count.

Also on Tuesday, the Democratic governors of Oregon, Colorado, Washington, Michigan, Illinois, North Carolina, New York, and Phil Scott, the Republican governor of Vermont, sent a letter to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham, urging them to extend the data collection deadline back to Oct. 31.

Census Bureau figures show that, as of Monday, the national self-response rate so far to the census survey was just shy of 64%.

Bill Lucia is a senior reporter for Route Fifty and is based in Olympia, Washington.

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