WASHINGTON — Conceding that its effort to count the nation’s population has been hamstrung by the coronavirus pandemic, the Census Bureau said Monday that it would ask Congress for a four-month delay in delivering the census data used to reapportion the House of Representatives and political districts nationwide.
In a news release, the bureau said it would ask that delivery of the final census figures be postponed to April 31, 2021 — 120 days beyond the existing Dec. 31, 2020, deadline. That would mean that state legislatures would get final population figures for drawing new maps as late as July 31, 2021. Delivery of that data normally is completed by the end of March.
The bureau also said it would extend the deadline for collecting census data, now Aug. 15, to Oct. 31, and would begin reopening its field offices — which have been shuttered since mid-March — sometime after June 1.
Democrats who oversee census operations in the House Oversight and Reform Committee reacted cautiously to the news, which they said was relayed early Monday to a handful of members of Congress in a telephone call with officials from the White House and the Commerce Department. The director of the census, Steven Dillingham, apparently did not participate in the call.
“The oversight committee will carefully examine the administration’s request, but we need more information than the administration has been willing to provide,” the committee’s chairwoman, Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney of New York, said in a statement.
“If the administration is trying to avoid the perception of politicizing the census, preventing the census director from briefing the committee and then excluding him from a call organized by the White House are not encouraging moves.”
That was echoed by a number of experts who said that the aura of secrecy surrounding this census, in sharp contrast to previous ones, limited support for the count and raised questions about what, if anything, was being concealed.
“It’s worrisome that the conversation with Congress wasn’t opened until today,” said Margo J. Anderson, a history professor and census scholar at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. “It just doesn’t help. It’s going to be hard enough to get this done.”
The 2020 head count has been mired in controversy since 2017, when the administration tried to amend the census questionnaire to ask who was not a citizen — which was widely seen as an effort to give Republicans a political edge in next year’s redistricting. Many experts also have expressed fears that the administration’s harsh anti-immigrant policies and rhetoric would deter minorities from filling out census forms, leading to an undercount that also would work to Republicans’ benefit.
A lengthy delay in reporting census figures to the states could throw a wrench into at least some states’ efforts to draw new political maps. Most states have fixed deadlines for approving new maps, some of them written into state constitutions, that could prove hard or impossible to meet if population figures are delayed into the summer, according to Jeffrey M. Wice, a redistricting expert and senior fellow at New York Law School.
“This could open a can of worms depending on the policies of the states,” he said. “It’s not inconceivable that some states might use administrative records to redistrict instead of the decennial census count,” a change that could have a substantial political impact depending on the data used.
The Constitution requires states to use census data for apportioning political districts — in other words, to ensure that districts like House seats are roughly equal in population. But courts have left the door open for states to use different population figures to actually draw maps in some circumstances. Republicans in some states have expressed interest in basing maps on population counts that exclude noncitizens or are limited to registered voters, formulas that would give minorities and other Democratic-leaning groups less political representation.
Census officials have said that response to the census — the first to be conducted largely over the internet — had been meeting expectations. But the bureau already had been forced once to extend the shutdown of field operations that it first announced in March. Efforts to count millions of households in specialized segments of the population — homeless people and those without fixed addresses, such as Native Americans on reservations — have been in limbo, awaiting the bureau’s decision when it would be safe to begin or resume them.
As of Monday, 48.1% of households had filled out census forms, with well over a month remaining in the formal period for responding. In the last census in 2010, 66.5% of households filled out forms; most of the rest were contacted by an army of door-knockers, called enumerators, who started work after the formal deadline for responding had passed.
This year, the door-knocking was scheduled to begin in mid-May, then postponed to late May. The bureau said Monday only that this count and other field operations would begin “as quickly as possible” after June 1, and last until Oct. 31.
A vast array of businesses, nonprofit groups and state and local governments have huge stakes in the census, which sets the bench mark for the next decade’s allocation of federal grants and subsidies, for marketing and planning studies that shape entire cities and, of course, for political representation.
Well before the announcement on Monday, some had expressed concern that the coronavirus could render a head count already beset by political infighting and public suspicion too troubled to produce an accurate accounting of the nation. The announcement appears certain to fan those fears.
“The breadth of the challenge facing the 2020 census is unprecedented,” said Terri Ann Lowenthal, an expert on the census who represents many groups seeking an accurate count. “The fundamental question Congress must address in considering the bureau’s request is whether the significant shifts in operations will contribute to lower accuracy in communities already at risk of disproportionate undercounting.”
The National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund, which works nationwide to bolster the Latino response to the count, said in a statement that the delay was a signal that the accuracy of the count could be imperiled without more support.
“There is only so much the bureau can do on its own to maintain the integrity of the process amid a national crisis like the one we are experiencing with COVID-19,” the statement said. “Congress has the authority and obligation to work with the bureau in taking a close look at all steps required to ensure an accurate count of all residents in the United States.”
This story was corrected to show the new deadline for delivery of the final census figures is April 31, 2021.