2020 Census Counting Operations Ending October 15 Following Supreme Court Stay

On October 13, the U.S. Supreme Court stayed a preliminary lower court injunction that had prevented the White House from ending the 2020 Census early. Counting operations will now end by October 15, with the Trump Administration still aiming to deliver apportionment data from the 2020 Census on December 31, 2020.

After requesting an extension of the legal deadlines for reporting census data on April 13 so that the Census Bureau could adapt to COVID-19 and collect data until October 31, the Administration changed course and sought to end all counting operations a month early (September 30). The district court issued a preliminary injunction on September 24 prohibiting the Administration from further implementing a rushed census plan that was forcing the Census Bureau to finish data collection by September 30 and to recommit to a shortened timeline for data analysis, review and processing. With the Census Bureau preparing to end counting operations early anyway, the district court issued a further stay and clarified its original injunction on October 1. The Administration then asked for the Supreme Court to intervene.

While the Supreme Court stay order did not include any comment, Justice Sonia Sotomayor issued a lengthy dissent, noting that “meeting the deadline at the expense of the accuracy of the census is not a cost worth paying, especially when the Government has failed to show why it could not bear the lesser cost of expending more resources to meet the deadline or continuing its prior efforts to seek an extension from Congress. This Court normally does not grant extraordinary relief on such a painfully disproportionate balance of harms.

The Census Bureau now says that counting operations will end on October 15, 2020, and that they have counted 99.9 percent of American households. Unfortunately, the completion rate tells us next to nothing about the accuracy of the count. As explained by a new American Statistical Association (ASA) task force report, “the percent of completed cases does not suffice to draw conclusions about data quality. For example, included in the tally of completed enumerations are households counted through a proxy response from a neighbor, including cases in which the proxy could provide no information beyond a guess of the number of individuals living in the household. In fact, meeting enumeration goals for a truncated deadline increases the likelihood of operational shortcuts that will jeopardize the quality of the count.

Stakeholders are thus continuing to urge passage of the bipartisan 2020 Census Deadline Extension Act (S. 4571 and H.R. 8250), either alone or as part of another legislative package, to extend the statutory reporting deadlines for the 2020 Census. This would allow for the full five months of data analysis, processing and review originally planned by the Census Bureau to ferret out errors, such as undercounts and double counts, instead of the 2 ½ months now allotted for that phase.

Stakeholders are also urging the adoption of the ASA task force report’s recommendations to measure data quality.