In an action that will have lasting effects on accuracy of data and underrepresentation of communities, the Supreme Court has decided to halt the 2020 census despite the difficulties faced in collecting data during the COVID-19 pandemic that have left large portions of the country unaccounted for.
Last Tuesday, the Supreme Court suspended a lower court’s order that field operations for the 2020 Census be extended to the end of October. The ruling comes under pressure from the Trump administration to end the head count early in order to get a head start processing the data. Per the Census Act, the Chamber of Commerce is required to report to the President the results of the census by Dec. 31, 2020. Due to the challenges of collecting census data during a pandemic, the Census Bureau proposed that Congress extend census field operations from the end of July to the end of October, and the deadline for the report to the President from Dec. 30 to April 30, 2021.
The Trump administration initially embraced this proposal. However, in mid-July, it announced its intent not to count undocumented immigrants for congressional apportionment. On Aug. 3, a Re-plan Schedule was announced, which proposed that data collection end on Sep. 30, which took pressure off Congress to extend the report deadline. However, due to delays as the case made its way through courts, the Census Bureau was able to count millions of people after Sep. 30, ending the operation on Oct. 15.
Only Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissented. Central to her argument was the hypocrisy of the government’s assertion that the Re-plan Schedule would be needed for a timely report to the President despite senior Census Bureau officials claiming months ago that a punctual report would be unfeasible whatever the deadline. Furthermore, she notes that allocating resources toward accelerating data processing would have been a much better alternative to simply asking for more time. The relative simplicity of this alternative strongly hints that the Trump administration’s motivations are more political than pragmatic, with effects that will reverberate through the next decade.
Sotomayor’s dissent echoes the backlash from numerous advocacy groups towards the Court’s decision. Aside from withholding representation from undocumented immigrants, ending data collection early hurts the quality of data from populations and places which are difficult to survey accurately anyway, including marginalized groups, rural areas and Native American Reservations.
The Court’s order also allows the Trump administration to control congressional apportionment even in the event of a Biden win. Alongside the confirmation hearings for Amy Coney Barrett, the 2020 census is a harrowing example of the hasty partisan decisions that happen in election years.
Since the census is conducted only once every 10 years, the repercussions of the incomplete data will be long-lasting. Additionally, because the census results are used to allot political power and government funding, communities who are underrepresented and underfunded will likely not see the change that is needed now that the census has been stopped before as many people as possible can be accounted for.
While the Census Bureau and the work that they do is supposed to be nonpartisan, the Trump administration appears to be using this as an opportunity to retain political power even if Trump is voted out of office. This is, unfortunately, yet another example of the ongoing polarization and partisanism throughout the country.
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