Though the Census Bureau reversed its decision to delay reporting data from the 2020 Census to states, experts warn states should still prepare for delays, which will in turn slow the process of redrawing their legislative and congressional districts.
The census results are used for apportionment, which determines how many congressional districts each state is allotted according to its population. For instance, the outcome of the 2010 Census meant that Texas gained four seats, and Florida gained two seats, while New York and Ohio each lost two seats in the House of Representatives.
The onset of COVID-19 stalled data collection for three months, and the Census Bureau has relied heavily on virtual outreach to remind people to respond. Field work has resumed now, and census takers are visiting households of those who have not yet responded. So far, the bureau says 65% of households have responded, and field collection is scheduled to end on September 30. Initially, the coronavirus prompted the bureau to delay its data collection deadline to October 31, and its delivery of the apportionment counts to the president to the end of April 2021. States were expecting to receive this data by July 31, 2021.
But the Census Bureau then decided to compress its timeline, ending field data collection a month early, in September 2020. The deadlines for apportionment and redistricting data were slashed by four months, and states are now set to receive their data by March 31, 2021.
This would also mean that President Trump would receive the apportionment data by the end of this year. Mr. Trump issued a memo in July saying that undocumented immigrants would be excluded from the apportionment count.
On Thursday, Justice Department attorneys, arguing on behalf of the Census Bureau, said in a court filing that the bureau has "already begun taking steps to conclude field operations." The Justice Department is representing the bureau in a lawsuit filed by the National Urban League, which is suing to extend the bureau's data collection operation. The Justice Department added that any extension "could not be implemented at this point without significant costs and burdens to the Census Bureau."
The bureau's timeline for when states will see its 2020 decennial data could have an outsized impact on New Jersey and Virginia. That's because the two states hold state legislature and gubernatorial elections in 2021. Even if the handling of the census data were taking place under normal conditions — without the impact of the coronavirus — they would be receiving the data in February 2021 and would have a tight window to draw new legislative maps and carry out their elections.
Michael Li, senior counsel at the Brennan Center, said it would be close to "impossible" for the two states to draw new maps if data isn't delivered by the end of summer. But given the levels of data that states will need, he said the "prudent thing for states would still be to plan for some sort of delay."
In late July, the New Jersey Legislature approved an amendment saying if the data is not delivered by February 15, 2021, redistricting would be put on hold, and current maps would be used for the 2021 elections. The amendment will be on the ballot in November.
Assemblyman John McKeon, who proposed the amendment, said the state won't get high-quality census data in time to redistrict. State Senator Nick Scutari sponsored the amendment and fears rushing the redistricting process could result in an undercount, which might impact representation and federal funding for New Jersey.
McKeon said the state could go to court if the Census Bureau "tries to shove numbers down our throat that are going to be inaccurate and cost us multi-millions, if not billions, of dollars over the next ten years."
"They're going to a plan of, 'Don't worry about it. We can accurately predict from what we have.' I mean, give me a break," McKeon said.
On August 18, a letter from the Office of Inspector General expressed concern that the Census Bureau would not have enough field employees to carry out its shortened deadline. It said that while the bureau aimed to hire just above 300,000 enumerators for field data collection, as of August 17, it only had 220,000.
"[Non-response follow up] enumerators represent a final opportunity for the Bureau to reach households who have not responded, including historically hard-to-count communities," the letter said. "To address these priorities, hiring and retaining sufficient enumerators is vital."
The Government Accountability Office also released a report warning the compressed timeframe would undermine the quality of the count.
In Virginia, if the data comes in too late, it would likely ask the state attorney general for approval to use its current maps for 2021, rather than rushing to redraw.
The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments wrote a letter on August 6, calling on the Senate to extend 2020 census operations by four months, as part of the next coronavirus legislation. The council said that the administration's proposal to "rush major census operations will throw the complex census contingency plan into turmoil and result in incomplete data" that undermines how trillions will be allocated.
State Senator George Barker, a council member, said while he made it clear a census delay would affect Virginia's 2021 elections, "everybody was fine with that."
"They'd rather have an accurate count for the whole decade, and be able to at least use an accurate count to come up with (district) lines," he told CBS News.
Several Democratic governors, and Republican Vermont Governor Phil Scott, sent a joint letter to the Census Bureau and Commerce Department asking them to extend census data collection to October 31, 2020.
Changes in the federal census timeline are also closely watched in California, which because of its size and population, tends to receive its data later. Its constitution sets a deadline of August 15, 2021 to receive data in order to draw new maps, though the legislature is mulling a delay until December 2021. California is also considering postponing its 2022 primaries from March until June 2022.
"You need to cement districts ahead of time, so candidates know where they're running, said Kathay Feng, the national redistricting director at Common Cause, a government watchdog organization.
Illinois' constitution sets an even earlier deadline, June 3, 2021, for its state legislature to pass a newly drawn map. State Senator Elgie Sims said he expects an undercount with the new census timelines, but Illinois hasn't taken any official action to delay its redistricting timeline.
Sims' district covers parts of Chicago's South Side and adjacent suburban counties, a community he said would "fall squarely into the hard-to-count category." While the state has a nearly 68% self-response rate, parts of his district report at a lower rate of 62%. The national average is 63.5%, according to the Census Bureau.
"If we have an undercounting of Illinois residents, it could cost us between $1,400 and $1,800 per person. Those are resources that won't go into education and health care," he said.
The Census Bureau claimed in a statement it would "improve the speed of our count without sacrificing completeness." It says it will follow up with households that haven't filled out the Census yet and will have additional training sessions and reward census takers who "maximize hours worked."
"Our commitment to a complete and accurate 2020 Census is absolute," said Census Bureau director Dr. Steven Dillingham.
Terri Ann Lowenthal, a census consultant and expert who served as staff director of the House Census Oversight Subcommittee, says some neighborhoods will suffer if the count isn't accurate.
"People aren't focused on the Census. They're focused on putting food on the table and keeping their families safe," she told CBS News. "And they are going to be hit doubly hard if there is a Census undercount because of the significant amount of federal funding ... that is guided by Census data for the next ten years."