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Inspector general asked to review Census Bureau’s decision to end count early

An inspector general has been asked to investigate whether President Trump or political appointees pressured the Census Bureau in its decision to wrap up door-knocking and other field activities at the end of September, a month sooner than planned.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (N.H.), the ranking Democrat of the commerce, justice, science and related agencies appropriations subcommittee, asked the Commerce Department’s inspector general to review the process that led the Census Bureau to reverse course and scuttle plans for extending the period for data collection because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Civil rights activists and others have raised concerns that shortening the period for data collection will lead to an undercount of traditionally hard-to-count communities, including minorities, undocumented immigrants and others.

“I believe that this deviation in schedule is driven not by expert opinions of career Census Bureau employees but by external pressure from the White House and the Department of Commerce for perceived political gain,” states Shaheen’s letter, which was dated Monday.

She also asked Inspector General Peggy E. Gustafson to monitor the proposed schedules and assess their impact on the accuracy of the count.

A Census Bureau spokesman said the agency was preparing a response to Shaheen’s letter.

Her request for a watchdog comes as a bipartisan group of 48 senators have called for an extension of the 2020 Census to ensure an accurate count. The effort, led by Sens. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), shifts the issue to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). The Democratic-led House has already signed off on an extension.

By law, a census must be conducted every 10 years and turned in to the president by Dec. 31 of the census year. When the pandemic hit earlier this year, the Census Bureau asked for more time to produce the population count. The bureau, with the blessing of Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, altered the tentative schedule and planned to continue field activities until Oct. 31.

But last week, the bureau reversed course and announced the deadline for data collection would be Sept. 30 to submit results by the Dec. 31 deadline.

The Census Bureau gathers much of its data from self-reporting. It then sends field enumerators to knock on doors of the households that have not yet replied. The follow-up is considered essential to reach people who are often missed in every census, including renters, low-income families, people with disabilities and rural inhabitants.

As of Tuesday, more than 63 percent of households had responded to the self-reporting surveys. About 500,000 enumerators, following a rolling start, were in the field across the nation, census officials said.

“We are fully deployed,” Census Bureau spokesman Michael Cook said Tuesday.

On a separate front, a three-judge panel has been appointed to hear legal challenges brought by the New York attorney general and the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of several states, cities, counties and civil rights organizations against the Trump’s handling of the census.

The groups, whose complaints have been merged into a single case, have sought expedited action against a July 21 memorandum from the president directing the Census Bureau to exclude undocumented immigrants from calculations for congressional apportionment.

By federal law, any action challenging the constitutionality of apportionment of congressional districts shall be heard by three judges unless the lower court judge determines otherwise. The coalition also argued that the case should be handled on an expedited basis because it said the Trump administration’s memo would force the bureau to improperly rely on statistical sampling instead of an actual population count to determine congressional apportionment. The motion was unopposed.

U.S. District Judge Jesse M. Furman, who presided over a hearing on their challenge last week, agreed to ask for a three-judge panel and expedite the matter. Furman, by order of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit’s chief judge, will now be joined by Judges Peter W. Hall and Richard C. Wesley.