Data Leak Pointing to Census Delays Could Trigger Subpoena

A children’s book is displayed at a U.S. Census walk-up counting site set up for Hunt County in Greenville, Texas, on July 31, 2020. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

WASHINGTON (CN) — Twenty-four hours after an anonymous data leak suggested delays to the decennial count already steeped in controversy, the Census Bureau made little effort Thursday to allay concern from lawmakers.

The data was provided to Democratic lawmakers on the House Oversight Committee, courtesy of an unnamed source, just ahead of what was an already scheduled public committee hearing on the risks to accuracy and completeness of the 2020 census.

In a PowerPoint presentation spread over at least three files, the slides appear to confirm, at least in part, what the Census Bureau tried to keep mum until mid-November when The New York Times first reported anonymous accounts from bureau officials alarmed at the number of errors in its data.

Those errors, they warned, would translate into delays, and those delays could result in skewed apportionment for state House seats countrywide. Bureau Director Steve Dillingham confirmed the existence of anomalies once the news got out, but offered no hard timeline for when he expected the counts to be complete.

On Thursday, Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney noted that neither Dillingham and Commerce Department Secretary Wilbur Ross has taken the committee up on its invitations to participate in public hearings.

She said the records provided to the committee shone light in areas the Trump administration wished to keep dark. In the documents, the bureau points to January 26 as the likely release date for the census data. Other records obtained put it closer to January 23. But those bureau memos only feature the general state-by-state accounting for the census.

Back in July, President Donald Trump ordered the Commerce Department to omit undocumented immigrants from census reporting used to determine states’ seats in the House of Representatives. Though federal judges enjoined the change, the Supreme Court heard arguments on the case Monday and could still overturn. If the results about immigrants end up featured in a separate report as Trump is seeking, the internal records show that the bureau expects to complete such reporting by February 3. 

That data, much like everything else that goes into the census, is not just vital to determining how many seats in the House states can secure based on their actual population. It also informs how much money states receive from the federal government for things like housing or food assistance, both significant factors given high rates of unemployment amid the still raging coronavirus pandemic.

But more fundamentally, Trump’s opponents argue, the order to count some not all also cuts against the constitutional framework girding the U.S. census since its inception.

Democrats on the House Oversight Committee brought the impact of the expected delays into sharp relief Thursday.

They emphasized how cutting undocumented immigrants out of the census effectively disenfranchises huge swaths of communities of color. It also dulls the political edge for Democratic electoral victories: High immigrant populations reside in most large cities in America, and in most large cities in America voters lean Democrat.

But despite anomalies like incorrectly recorded ages and double counts in the data, the Census Bureau said Thursday the discrepancies are “expected” and are “similar to the Census Bureau’s experience in prior decennial censuses.”

“What is certain is that the Census Bureau is working to thoroughly correct and address all issues and anomalies as a part of its mission to deliver accurate 2020 Census data products as close to the statutory deadline as possible,” the bureau said in a statement. 

Robert Santos, vice president and chief methodologist at the Urban Institute, testified Thursday that, between delays and discrepancies, even seemingly small ones, the impact can be huge.

Having studied the data from the 2010 census, Santos found that the white population was overcounted by about 0.8%, making for a net undercount of people of color including non-Hispanic Blacks.

“It is unfair to undercount one sector and overcount another to achieve overall accuracy,” Santos said.

Inaccuracies in the data can reinforce inequity for communities’ decades at a time, making complete transparency from the U.S. Census Bureau on its findings hugely important, Santos said.

Republicans on the House Oversight Committee including Representative Thomas Massie of Kentucky and Jody Hice of Georgia argued that the data was implicitly inaccurate by counting undocumented immigrants in the first place. The Republican members’ sole witness at the hearing, Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry did not mince words stating his position, but offered no evidence to support this claim. 

“Sanctuary policy enticing illegal entry undermines community safety and the rule of law,” Landry said, arguing that states have to work against the census system and each other when “illegal aliens” are counted

Chairwoman Maloney, a New York Democrat, said Thursday that the data shows hundreds of thousands of records with anomalies.

If the statutory deadline imposed by the White House of December 31 comes and goes without apportionment numbers filed, it will be a blow to the president’s push to change how undocumented immigrants are counted.

But unless he can succeed in litigation, Trump’s designs for the census will ultimately be mooted by both the expected inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden next month and the Census Bureau’s own foot-dragging.

Chair Maloney said Thursday she would consider issuing a subpoena in short order should Commerce Secretary Ross refuse to cooperate with the House Oversight committee by December 9.

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