Census forms arrived in America’s mailboxes just as Washington and other states ordered most citizens to stay home to control coronavirus. The situation provides an excellent opportunity for socially distanced Americans to fill out the civic paperwork, but officials must overcome several challenges coronavirus presents to the population count.
The Census Bureau should take all reasonable steps to give the nation an accurate count by the end of this year, as federal law requires. The Bureau’s reactions so far to the pandemic crisis reflect well-considered adjustments. Field operations such as counting people in nursing homes and homeless shelters were delayed to later in April. The final deadline to respond has been moved from July to Aug. 14.
These common-sense moves will allow precious extra time to conduct both the public and bureaucratic aspects of the Census on a schedule close to what planners originally conceived. But 40 mayors from across America, including Seattle’s Jenny Durkan and Everett’s Cassie Franklin, ask too much of the system. In a March 26 letter, the mayors asked Census Director Steven Dillingham to push the response deadline to Sept. 30.
The mayors had noble intentions. Their letter cites the urgent need for an equitable census, which requires public outreach to count vulnerable populations and people who lack access to this year’s new ability to fill out Census forms online. A community undercount doesn’t just mean the head count number is wrong in a government database. It means a population cannot be allocated its fair share of needed public resources.
But while the mayors are right to fight for accurate counts for their cities, they directed their pushback in the wrong direction. Only Congress can make the change they seek. It was wrong to publicly advocate to push back the response date into autumn. The behind-the-scenes machinations involved in processing millions of Census responses to get accurate numbers take months to carry out. The Urban Institute, a respected national nonprofit, warns that Census workers may need more time than the Dec. 31 deadline allows to manage coronavirus-related count complications, such as duplicate responses from displaced people.
And that’s with the August date in place. Moving the census response date further would obliterate the existing deadline, according to Gary Locke, the former governor and U.S. commerce secretary who oversaw the 2010 U.S. Census.
“To delay the door-to-door canvassing to September would make that (December deadline) logistically impossible,” Locke said.
Because the Census Bureau can’t duck that deadline without changing federal law, Durkan and the other mayors should direct their request toward the congressional delegations representing their cities. These delegations need to spend the next few months closely monitoring how responses come in and keep up communication with census managers. Too many cascading effects would come with a delayed count, including rescheduling national redistricting, for Congress to grant one lightly.
Every U.S. resident should help ease the pressure on the system by taking a few minutes to complete a census response without delay — via my2020census.gov, by phone or mail. The fewer doors census takers need to knock on, the sooner the count can be completed.