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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

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.