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Analysis

We’re Suing to Stop the Trump Administration from Rushing the Census

The Census Bureau’s new plan to hurry the count is unconstitutional and will hurt people of color.

September 8, 2020
census form
Bill Oxford/Getty

On August 18, the Brennan Center and allies sued to stop the Trump administration’s sudden decision to cut crucial 2020 Census operations short, and over Labor Day weekend a federal judge ordered a temporary halt to the rushed plans until a hearing in the case next Thursday. 

The Covid-19 pandemic means that more time is needed for an accurate count, not less. But the Census Bureau’s decision would force the bureau to complete eight and half months of work in half the time, disregarding the agency’s own expert conclusion that rushing will lead to an inaccurate count.

The unexplained rush poses a grave threat to ensuring that people of color are counted in the census and receive their fair share of political representation and funding for essential services. It violates the Constitution’s requirement for an accurate count as well as federal law that requires such policy reversals be based on clear, valid reasons. And it is part of a discriminatory plan, as it comes just weeks after President Trump’s unconstitutional plan to exclude undocumented people from state population totals.

The Brennan Center, along with the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Public Counsel, and the law firm Latham & Watkins, is representing stakeholders and communities that have much to lose if the bureau is allowed to proceed with its plan to rush the census to a close. The plaintiffs include the National Urban League; the League of Women Voters; the Black Alliance for Just Immigration; the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; the Navajo Nation; Harris County, Texas; King County, Washington; the city of San Jose, California; and individuals who live in parts of the country that are likely to be undercounted and underrepresented as a result of the administration’s decision. Joining the challenge represented by separate counsel are also the cities of Los Angeles, Salinas, and Chicago, as well as Los Angeles County and the Gila River Indian Community.

In April, as the coronavirus was spreading across the United States, the Census Bureau implemented a plan to protect the health and safety of the public while still ensuring that it could conduct an accurate count. The plan delayed the start of all counting methods that require face-to-face contact and extended the time for calculating the state population totals used for apportioning the House of Representatives from December 31, 2020, to April 30 of next year.

Deep into the summer, census officials maintained that they could not possibly provide high quality data in time for the original deadline. Yet on August 3, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross and Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham abruptly abandoned the Covid-19 plan and announced that the bureau will be ceasing all 2020 Census counting operations a full month before the pandemic plan called for, and would rush to report the numbers by December 31.

The lawsuit contends that the decision to cut the census short violates the Enumeration Clause of the Constitution because it is not reasonably related to achieving an accurate count. Similarly, it argues that the decision violates the Administrative Procedure Act because the administration has provided no explanation for rushing.

It appears that the real reason is to undercut the political power of people of color. Indeed, the rushed timeline shortens operations the Census Bureau has designed specifically to count people the bureau has historically missed, including people of color. The new plan essentially guarantees that the 2020 Census will not fully count those populations, and it will therefore perpetuate systemic racism in our democracy for the next 10 years.

A hearing in the case is set for September 17. The stakes are high, and we’re asking the court to prevent the administration from implementing its rushed plan so the Census Bureau gets the time it needs to complete a fair and accurate count.