Census Fight Cools After Biden Administration Takes Helm

What was a bitter battle between civil rights groups and the Trump administration over a truncated census count during a virulent pandemic has grown more civil as the Biden administration has taken over the process. 

A briefcase of a census taker is seen as she knocks on the door of a residence Aug. 11, 2020, in Winter Park, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

(CN) — The acrimonious fight that pitted cities, counties and civil rights groups against the federal government over the 2020 census count looks to have grown more amiable as a federal judge granted a stay so the two sides could arrange a settlement, according to an order issued late Wednesday night. 

“The parties have engaged in good-faith discussions concerning the potential resolution of this case, and the parties have reached agreement on key portions of plaintiffs’ claims,” U.S. District Court Judge Lucy Koh wrote in a 9-page order. 

The good-faith discussions represent a complete about-face from where discussions between the parties stood before President Joe Biden won the presidency in November and assumed the Oval Office in January. 

Plaintiffs had sought sanctions against Trump administration attorneys for failing to turn over adequate documents during the discovery process and playing coy with data relating to the completeness of the census. 

At times during contentious hearings, Alexander Sverdlov, the Department of Justice attorney assigned to the case, barely mustered the effort to argue the administration’s side; instead, he asked Koh to issue orders expeditiously as to be able to file an appeal. It is rare to witness such naked contempt for the judicial process from attorneys, let alone government attorneys. 

But the tenor of the argument has changed with the administrations. 

“We are optimistic that things at the Census Bureau will be better,” said Marc Morial, president and CEO of the National Urban League, one of the plaintiffs in the case. “The question is whether the damage caused by the Trump administration can be rectified.”

The plaintiffs are mainly concerned with whether the data collection part of the census, this year taken during an unprecedented pandemic that required field collectors to limit their interactions with members of households, will be accurate. 

The plaintiffs took issue with the Trump administration’s effort to curtail the period in which data collectors are out in the field, saying it was a deliberate attempt to undercount cities and other areas that typically trend Democratic. 

The “replan” is how the bureau referred to its plan to conduct the census amid a global pandemic. Instead of delaying the overall deadline of Dec. 31, the Trump administration decided to shorten the period in which the bureau collects population data while also truncating the all-important follow-up phase from 11.5 weeks to 7.5 weeks. 

Koh repeatedly sided with the plaintiffs, awarding them a temporary restraining order and then a preliminary injunction, although there remained some question as to whether Trump’s Census Bureau abided by those orders. 

“The effect of this shorter timeframe will be particularly pronounced due to the pandemic. Covid-19 has not only made it more difficult to hire enumerators but also made it more difficult for enumerators to conduct safe and effective NRFU,” Koh wrote in a September order, using the acronym for non-response follow-up, where census takers circle back to households that did not respond during the first round. 

The census is so crucial because it decides the allotment of federal grants and other forms of federal funding as well as apportionment, or the process of dividing the 435 seats in the House of Representatives. An inaccurate census could alter the balance of power in Congress.

At present, the Democrats control the majority by a slender margin.

President Joe Biden signed an executive order on his first day in office requiring illegal immigrants to be counted, another contentious aspect of the 2020 census, but the question of accuracy remains. 

The Biden administration has pledged to give the Census Bureau the time it requires to finish the count in an accurate fashion. 

Workers within the bureau often complained they were rushed and even encouraged to falsify numbers so the Trump administration could finalize the count, but after Trump lost the election, he turned his attention elsewhere and Biden will ultimately preside over the apportionment process. 

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