In a win for the integrity of the census, on Friday the Trump administration agreed not to release population numbers or any citizenship data before President-Elect Joe Biden takes office on January 20.
The agreement, approved late Friday by a federal court, comes in a lawsuit challenging the administration’s efforts to rush the decennial count to a close before President Trump leaves office, which would have opened the door for him to illegally manipulate the count. It represents a significant victory for the coalition of civil rights groups, civil society organizations, and tribal and local governments who brought the case, represented by the Brennan Center, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and the law firm Latham & Watkins LLP.
The administration’s reversal provides the Census Bureau with more time to process the numbers that will be used to reapportion the House and redraw electoral maps across the country.
The Trump administration had attempted to accelerate census data collection and processing operations to send population numbers for apportionment to the president by December 31, 2020, instead of April 30, 2021, as the Census Bureau had planned under a delayed schedule devised to cope with the coronavirus pandemic. That unexplained rush posed a serious danger to correctly counting people of color and their chance for a fair share of representation and federal funding. The plaintiffs had previously succeeded in extending the census count to October 15, but Trump administration officials continued to press the Census Bureau to deliver census totals to Trump before his term ends.
The agreement also means that the administration cannot move forward with its attempt to implement Trump’s unconstitutional plan to exclude undocumented people from the count. (Multiple federal courts had declared that plan illegal before the Supreme Court last month declared the memorandum premature for judicial review, opening the possibility that the Trump administration would carry it out.)
Judge Lucy Koh of the United States District Court for the Northern District of California approved the agreement. In exchange for not releasing the numbers before Inauguration Day, the federal government received a three-week pause in the case to give the Biden administration an opportunity to assess its position going forward.
The administration’s attempts to politicize and interfere with the census brought years of chaos, threatening the accuracy and integrity of the count. Now, instead of facing an artificial deadline of completing the task before Trump leaves office, the Census Bureau will have more time to work on the numbers before they are released.
In a year when the bureau faced obstacles ranging from raging wildfires and hurricanes to the Covid-19 pandemic, that extra time is essential to increase the likelihood of getting a full, fair, and accurate count.
The plaintiffs in the lawsuit are membership and advocacy organizations, counties, cities, federally recognized Indian tribes, and individuals whose communities would be underrepresented in the final census count with a truncated 2020 Census. They include the National Urban League, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Black Alliance for Just Immigration, the League of Women Voters, the Navajo Nation, Gila River Indian Community, and several local governments.