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Trump's census chicanery

Amid concerns of the spread of COVID-19, census

Amid concerns of the spread of COVID-19, census worker Jennifer Pope wears a mask and sits by ready to help at a U.S. Census walk-up counting site set up for Hunt County in Greenville, Texas on July 31, 2020. Credit: AP/LM Otero

The Constitution mandates that there be a count of all people in the United States every 10 years. The words are very clear. It’s also clear President Donald Trump does not want an accurate census count.

He has tried several ways to ensure that immigrants here illegally are not included, in blatant violation of processes in place for decades. Now he’s devised one final strategy: Limit the time the Census Bureau has to do the count. That way, census workers will be less likely to reach those typically hardest to contact — primarily, immigrants here illegally but also rural residents and low-income families.

In April, the Trump administration told Congress it needed more time to complete the 2020 count; the bureau’s field operation, like much of the country, was shuttered by the coronavirus pandemic. The bureau asked to extend the window for data collection to Oct. 31 and push back the legal deadline for delivering the count to the president from Dec. 31 to April 30, 2021. Now, in an about-face, the bureau says it will stop data collection by Sept. 30 and give Trump the count by Dec. 31.

Republicans are complicit in the chicanery. The House passed legislation needed to extend the deadline but the GOP-run Senate never acted. Now the all-important final door-knocking push will be shortened from 10 weeks to six, an impossible time frame. Finding the 60 million people not yet tallied — those fearful of being counted, those not comfortable giving information to a federal agency, or those simply hard to locate — is difficult in the best of times. But the Pew Research Center found that 40% of adults who haven’t responded say they won’t open the door to census workers because of virus fears. 

Four former Census Bureau directors under both Democrats and Republicans said the earlier deadline would produce “seriously incomplete enumerations” around the country. Census officials would have to make educated guesses about missing households based on statistical formulas, a less accurate substitute, exacerbating existing undercounts of immigrants here illegally and other minorities. That would have severe repercussions for New York and other states with large numbers of those communities because the census determines the allocation of trillions in federal aid and the number of House seats in each state over the next decade. An undercount could cost New York at least two seats, one possibly on Long Island.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo last week encouraged census participation, with phone banking for Spanish speakers, promotions through state agencies and business groups, and ads on buses, subways and commuter rail. That’s good. New York’s census completion rate Friday of 58.9% lagged the nation’s (66.4%) and Long Island towns with large immigrant populations like Islip (66.3%) trailed those with fewer immigrants like Smithtown (76.3%). When you talk to family members, friends and neighbors, encourage them to complete the census. Let’s drive that number up.

Getting the census right is a matter of law, not politics or policy. And getting it right is all that counts.

— The editorial board