Supreme Court Allows Census to Be Cut Short—and Considers Defying 150 Years of Precedent

October 21, 2020
US Census Bureau
Taryn MacKinney
Investigative Researcher

On Tuesday, October 13, the Supreme Court ruled that the Census Bureau could end the 2020 census count early, marking an abrupt end to a months-long tussle over the Bureau’s census timeline. Then, only a few days later, the Court announced that it would consider the administration’s effort to exclude undocumented immigrants from the census, a move that would defy 150 years of constitutional precedent.

The 2020 census faces a pandemic and political interference

The pandemic lies at the heart of this tussle. The novel coronavirus reached US shores in January; by mid-March, the Census Bureau had halted field operations to keep its workers and the public safe. In mid-April, as infections skyrocketed and states shut down, the Bureau urged Congress to allow “120 additional calendar days” to complete the census. The extension would bump the final deadline for the census from December to April. Bureau leaders were reassured that Congress and the Commerce Department (DOC), which oversees the Bureau, would back the extension. The president expressed support during a press briefing.

But this plan screeched to a halt on July 29. According to a report by the DOC’s watchdog office, a senior DOC official approached Bureau staff with an alarming request: Make a plan to meet the original December deadline. Census staff realized they would have to shorten counting efforts by a month, from October 31 to September 30. “It’s going to be impossible to complete the count in time,” an employee told a reporter. A leaked Bureau analysis laid bare this fear: the shortened schedule, it warned, could increase the risk of serious errors that “may not be fixed” and “reduce [the] accuracy” of the census.

Even after a federal judge ruled against the shortened deadline, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross announced that the count would end on October 5—only six days later. The federal judge called the move an “egregious violation” of her order and demanded the census continue through October 30.

The Supreme Court deals a blow to a fair census

The administration appealed and, on October 13, the Supreme Court ruled that the census could end early, a blow to advocates for undercounted people. The census count ended on October 15; the very next day, the Court announced that it would review the administration’s July attempt to exclude undocumented immigrants when apportioning congressional seats—despite the Constitution’s 150-year-old call for the census to “[count] the whole number of persons” in the country. The Supreme Court will hold a hearing on the matter on November 30.

The impacts of these attacks could be felt for a decade or more. Census data ensure that communities get funding to build roads and hospitals, and they help businesses decide where to expand. They are crucial for schools to educate and feed kids, and they help researchers conduct lifesaving research. Worse, low-income individuals, people of color, undocumented immigrants, Indigenous people, and children are among the least likely to be counted accurately. If hard-to-count households are missing from census data, their communities could lose funding for critical public services, like health care and school nutrition programs. They could even lose fair representation in government.

In a year of calamity, it is more important than ever that our government upholds its constitutional duty to conduct an accurate census. After all, the census reaches every corner of life in the United States. It is fundamental to a just and equitable society. All of us should count.