BRIDGEPORT, Conn. (CN) — Highlighting unprecedented pitfalls that the U.S. Census Bureau faces for its 2020 count, the NAACP brought a federal complaint Thursday to access records on the bureau’s preparations.
With $400 billion in federal funding on the line, the stakes couldn’t be higher.
Because the bureau has a history of undercounting minorities, the NAACP says that the communities in strongest need federal funding “may not receive their fair share … especially in key areas such as education and infrastructure.”
Filing its complaint Thursday with a federal judge in Bridgeport, the NAACP complains that the public has been kept in the dark about what measures the bureau is taking to ensure a more accurate count in the face of “serious obstacles.”
“These include hiring and personnel gaps, exacerbated by a federal hiring freeze imposed in January 2017; an unprecedented move to digitize the census, with unknown vulnerabilities to cyberattack and disparate impacts on communities with less access to broadband internet services; a lack of senior leadership; and budgetary shortfalls at a time when the Bureau’s funding should be substantially increasing,” the complaint states. “These deficiencies recently prompted the U.S. Government Accountability Office to label the 2020 census a ‘high-risk’ program. Yet the bureau has failed to fully communicate to the public how it plans to carry out the 2020 census in light of these obstacles.”
The NAACP says it tried to compel disclosure of these these records under the Freedom of Information Act, but that the bureau missed a statutory deadline to comply.
Four documents and several internet links began trickling in on Oct. 3, but the NAACP is still waiting on a final response, “even by [the Census Bureau’s improperly extended deadlines,” according to the complaint.
Government agencies do not typically comment on pending litigation as a matter of policy, but
U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said in an email Friday that the NAAP’s lawsuit “mischaracterizes the process and is largely without merit.”
“It is unfortunate the litigants brought this action,” Ross added. “If their true concerns are related to undercounting, there are many non-litigious avenues to communicate and engage on those concerns.”
Ross emphasized the bureau’s dedication “to assuring a full, fair, and accurate count, and I pledge to oversee the bureau’s efforts to discharge that commitment.”
The NAACP noted that records it seeks concern “hiring practices, cancellations/delays of tests, digitization, and outreach to hard-to-count populations,” among other topics.
In April, Congress approved $1.47 billion in funding for the Census Bureau for the 2017 fiscal year, which is about 10 percent less than what the Obama administration had requested.
Completion of a decennial census is required by Article I, Section 2, of the U.S. Constitution.
NAACP General Counsel Bradford Berry noted that communities of color are not the only ones routinely undercounted by the census.
Counters also tend to overlook children, home renters, low-income persons and rural residents, “but all signs indicate that the 2020 Census will be a particularly egregious failure on this front,” Berry said.
Scot Esdaile, president of the NAACP’s Connecticut State Conference, which is also a plaintiff in the lawsuit, addressed the importance of getting the census right.
“If we aren’t counted, then we don’t count — our votes are diluted, our schools go underfunded, and our community needs are ignored,” Esdaile said.
The NAACP is represented by Michael Wishnie with Yale Law School’s Rule of Law Clinic in New Haven.