Predicting Census Fiasco, Marylanders Head to Court

GREENBELT, Md. (CN) — A largely black county of Maryland county that is routinely undercounted by the government brought a federal complaint Wednesday to compel greater attention from the U.S. Census Bureau.

With attorneys from the NAACP, Jenner & Block and Yale Law School’s Rule of Law Clinic, Prince George’s County brought its complaint in Maryland to address what it calls conspicuous deficiencies in the lead-up to the decennial census.

“Despite these imminent threats to the accuracy and integrity of the 2020 Census, the bureau has been operating on the cheap, without sufficient funding to address its many challenges,” the complaint states.

Among other things, the county notes, “the Census Bureau lacks both a permanent director and a deputy director.”

Prince George’s County says the bureau’s ability to fill routine staff vacancies has been hampered by a presidential hiring freeze, and that the bureau has canceled several essential field tests and “dress rehearsal” in the past two years.

Emphasizing that 2020 will also be the nation’s first-ever digital census, the challengers say the bureau’s preparation failures “will exacerbate undercounts and leave the census vulnerable to cyber-attack.”

“If a court does not act promptly to remedy these constitutional failures, the deficiencies currently present in the 2020 census will become irremediable, and there will be no amount of funding, hiring, or appropriate planning that can fix the serious existing deficiencies in time for the census,” the complaint states.

In addition to the political consequence of losing equitable representation in the Maryland Legislature and in Congress because of census undercounts, Prince George’s County notes that federal funding is also on the line.

“Based on the 2000 census undercount, the county lost almost $27 million in federal funding for eight prominent federal programs between 2002 and 2012,” the complaint states.

The county put its total rate of omissions at 8.3 percent in 2010, approximately 73,351 individuals.

This was “the highest net undercount of any county in Maryland, and one of the highest net undercounts in the nation among counties with 100,000 residents or more,” the complaint states.

Predicting an even greater loss of funding from the mishandling of the 2020 census, Prince George’s County notes that black communities are just one minority group that the Census Bureau deems “hard to count.”

LGBTQ individuals, the homeless and children are other such groups, but the census by contrast tends to overcount homeowners and non-Hispanic whites.

“The deficiencies risked by the 2020 census preparations are not simply

the result of a choice of methodology,” the complaint states. “Rather, they are a result of conspicuous neglect of a constitutional duty, through underfunding, understaffing, and under-planning, inadequacies that are all the more dangerous because of the roll-out of untested new technology.

“Defendants are well behind the typical pace of funding, staffing and preparation at this stage of a census cycle, even before considering the ambitious technological approach that defendants have decided to undertake.”

Wednesday’s lawsuit came six months after the NAACP and Yale’s Rule of Law Clinic brought a federal Freedom of Information Act complaint to access Census Bureau records on its preparation process for the upcoming count.

The new complaint makes no mention, however, the Trump administration’s announcement last week that the 2020 census will for the first time since 1950 ask respondents to divulge their citizenship.

Undocumented immigrants and low-income households are another historically hard-to-count group, and Prince George’s County anticipates that the latter will affect its count in 2020 with the rollout of the first-ever digital census.

“The ‘digital divide’ in the U.S. is stark,” according to the complaint. “Only half of households earning incomes less than $30,000 per year have access to broadband internet.”

Representatives for the NAACP and the Census Bureau did not return requests for comment.

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