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Weeks before the Trump administration announced it was cutting the 2020 census calendar, Census Bureau officials attempted to send out signaling signals about how that last-minute decision would lead to “fatal” data issues with the counting of national people and the perception of “politically manipulated results”.
Internal emails and reminders, which were released this weekend as part of a federal lawsuit in California, show career officials try to maintain the integrity of the once-every-decade count together in the last weeks of July between the administration’s growing pressure to abandon the extended timeline it had previously approved in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Shortening this program, warns a draft document dated July 23, “will result in a census that has fatal flaws in the quality of data that are unacceptable for a national constitutional mandate”.
With the count ending on September 30, the revelations will come shortly before federal courts decide whether to order the administration to continue counting the country’s residents until October 31.
The administration says it is under pressure to meet the current December 31 statutory deadline to report to the president those state population totals that are used to reorganize congressional seats between states. Justice Department lawyers say the scheduling problem is for Congress to fix it, and so far, while some lawmakers have introduced bills, they haven’t passed new laws yet.
A hearing before US District Judge Lucy Koh in Northern California is scheduled for Tuesday, the day after another hearing in a similar lawsuit based in Maryland.
Last week, the Bureau’s Census Scientific Advisory Committee unanimously recommended extending the timeline as the bureau called for “ensuring successful completion” in a way based on “scientific and methodological expertise.”
“When the time is not right, we postpone rocket launches into space,” the external expert group wrote in their recommendations to the Bureau. “The same should apply to the ten-year tally, the results of which will impact the distribution, district reorganization, funding decisions, legal mandates and regulatory uses of the ten-year census data over the next decade.”
In the California-based lawsuit, a coalition led by the National Urban League argues that the administration’s sudden decision to end counting early goes against the constitutional mandate to count every person living in the United States.
The move, challengers argue, was made arbitrarily in the wake of a now blocked memorandum that President Trump issued on July 21. Trump has called for unauthorized immigrants to be excluded from the breakdown count, despite the 14th amendment requiring them to include “the full number of people in each state.”
In April, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross – who oversees the office and ultimately directed the agency to end the census schedule – asked Congress to postpone the census deadlines to “ensure completeness and accuracy.” of the tally this year as the office tried to circumvent disruptions caused by COVID-19.
According to an email released this weekend, the administration abandoned that push by July 20, when the office’s public position had become so uncertain that its chief financial officer, Ben Page, was unsure how to respond. to questions from congressional leaders about whether the agency still needs to change reporting terms.
Days earlier, office officials hurried to prepare for a July 17 phone call with Ross. They asked Kathleen Styles, head of 2020 Census Communications and Stakeholder Relations at the office, for help in explaining the time it takes for the office to perform quality checks on all information collected this year for the census.
Styles and Page, who are both career officers, eventually circulated separate draft documents with other office officials who tried to clearly explain, as Styles wrote in an email, “why we need every minute of the requested program extension “.
“While it may be tempting to think that quality reviews can be shortened, through decades of experience the Census Bureau has learned that quality reviews are essential to produce data products that don’t need to be recalled, products that stand the test. of time, “said the July 21 version of the document” Elevator Speech “Styles drafted for the first time.
The document also signaled the danger of a “great skepticism” about the count results if the administration were to shorten the calendar after office officials repeatedly stressed in public the need for more time.
“Census results have always been about trust: Our nation uses census data because people and politicians have confidence in the Census Bureau’s ability to produce unbiased, high-quality data, free from political interference,” the document states. “In this sense, being seen to produce politically manipulated results is as much a danger as low-quality data.”
Career Bureau officials tried to prepare Steven Dillingham, a Trump appointee who is the current director of the office, to communicate the need for extensions to lawmakers during a hearing before the Oversight and Reform Commission. of the House on 29 July.
A presentation for Dillingham’s briefing book found that although the office’s methodology for processing census results has been “updated with improved current technology,” it will not allow the office to “meet legal deadlines based on current projected field completion dates “.
During the Capitol Hill hearing, however, Dillingham ultimately didn’t answer multiple questions about whether he supports the Bureau’s original request to extend the terms of the census. Instead, Dillingham told lawmakers that “the Census Bureau and others really want us to move forward as quickly as possible.”
On the same day of the hearing, Ross ordered the bureau to come up with a plan to “speed up” the census operations and present it to him on Aug.3, Al Fontenot, associate director for the 2020 census, revealed this month in a filing in court.
NPR confirmed the next day, July 30, that the Bureau had decided to accelerate efforts to knock on doors to finish on September 30, a month ahead of schedule.
Meanwhile, despite their recommendations against reducing the census timing, based on Ross’s orders, Fontenot hired other career officials at the office on July 30 to flesh out plans to do so.
In the next day’s emails, Fontenot praised the teams that “sweated and worked” and Michael Thieme, an assistant director in charge of systems and contracts for the earl, noted the “great work under high pressure.”
“Now I just wish it was for a more positive situation than the one we are facing,” Thieme added.