Every 10 years, the United States counts its residents in a multistage, meticulously planned operation that culminates in spring and summer, with hundreds of thousands of workers fanning out to public events and private homes to help complete the survey.
But this year, just as Census 2020 activities were set to roll out on a mass scale, COVID-19 shut the country down. Now, instead of following the strict timeline developed and refined over years, the Census Bureau has been forced to embrace a flexibility in implementing the constitutionally mandated survey.
"The coronavirus is in the driver's seat," said Terri Ann Lowenthal, a former staff director of the House census oversight subcommittee. "The course of the epidemic will determine when and how the Census Bureau can carry out all of the major operations that have been disrupted in one way or another, which in turn will affect its ability to produce accurate results in the end. There are more uncertainties than not at this stage."
Like many whose plans were interrupted by the pandemic, the bureau initially made minor adjustments, tweaking its schedule by a couple of weeks and redirecting advertising from public arenas to digital, radio and television — changes that still will allow it to deliver results to the president by the Dec. 31 due date.
But as it became clear the country could remain in some form of lockdown well into summer, the government shifted its approach. On April 13, the Trump administration told the House Oversight Committee it wanted more time to gather and deliver the data, which is used to determine a decade's worth of congressional reapportionment and redistricting, as well as $1.5 trillion in federal funding annually.
Congress must approve any change in the deadline for delivering apportionment counts to the president; the Trump administration requested an additional four months, to April 30, 2021. The bureau also said it is planning a four-month extension of the deadline for delivering redistricting data to states, to July 31, 2021, and pushed the deadline for data collection from mid-August to Oct. 31 of this year.
The committee has yet to say whether it will approve the request to move the reporting deadline for apportionment. Its interactions with the administration over the census have been tense, with Democratic members accusing the government of withholding information related to its unsuccessful effort to add a citizenship question to the survey.
Now, members say they need more information to consider the government's request.
"They need, one, to actually start answering questions from our committee, and two, to have a detailed written plan that shows how they're going to make sure it's a complete and accurate count," said a senior Democratic committee aide who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The Census Bureau said Friday it is now planning a "phased" restart of its field operations, which had already been pushed back to June. Workers will go out at different times in different areas of the country based on "federal, state, and local public health guidance," as well as the availability of personal protective equipment (PPE).
Bureau spokesman Michael Cook said the safety of census employees and the public will be paramount as the bureau assesses its ability to conduct the in-person part of the count. That includes bureau employees delivering the survey to populations that don't have regular mailing addresses, such as some American Indian reservations, and knocking on the doors of households across the country that haven't responded to mailed requests.
"We've already ordered PPEs . . . to equip our staff to be able to go out in public as soon as the local conditions are in line with us being able to resume operations," Cook said.
But no plan can be airtight when it is unclear whether reopening parts of the country will result in a new rash of infections and lead to further shutdowns. Even if the bureau is able to stick to its current plan, a four-month delay in reporting census data could cause challenges for elections and redistricting next year.
Virginia and New Jersey hold off-year statewide elections in 2021, as do some local jurisdictions around the country. A delay of four months or longer would mean they would be unlikely to get information about districts and apportionment in time to hold primaries based on 2020 population data.
In cases where deadlines are set by the state constitution and timing is too tight, courts would likely need to decide whether to push back primaries, carry on with elections based on existing maps and wait to do redistricting, or seek other solutions.
"There might be a data set you could cobble together based on estimates," said Justin Levitt, an election law professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. "I suspect that the courts would be more comfortable with elections based on maps based on old data rather than trying to work with new data."
Litigation around redistricting, which is common after the census, will also be squeezed, he said, adding, "Unfortunately, incumbents could use it to their advantage."
The delays could affect general elections as well, said Wendy Underhill, director of elections and redistricting for the National Conference of State Legislatures. States will have a much smaller window to determine which candidates can run in which district, to meet filing deadlines, and to create ballots for overseas voters.
"It's really asking a lot to dump data on July 31 or even six weeks earlier and have them be prepared to run elections in the fall," she said. "The states are going to need to be nimble."
The bureau has a real-time online map that can tell, down to the census tract, what percentage of a city, county, state or the nation has responded. So far, 56% of the nation has responded, which Cook said is ahead of where the bureau had estimated the country would be at this point.
As of May 1, West Virginia’s census self-response rate is 43.6%, lower than the national average. In Ohio, the self-response rate is above the national average at 61.1%, while Kentucky sits similarly at nearly 60%.
"At the rate at which we are going, we know that we will exceed our total projected response rate of 60.5 by the end of May," Cook said.
That will allow five months for the bureau to collect the remaining 39.5 percent of responses. But collecting data over such a long period, and at different times based on location, creates its own set of concerns. The count is based on the number of people living in a household as of April 1; the more time that passes between that date and when households are counted, the more possibility there is for error, especially among traditionally undercounted populations that may be more transient.
"Conducting operations at different times in different geographic areas could skew the count," the Oversight Committee aide said. "Those differences create room for error and they also create potential for inequities. So if North Dakota opens up May 1 but New York doesn't open up until November 1, you have the possibility for New Yorkers to get skimped."
Looming over the discussion is the question of what happens if the pandemic ultimately prevents the bureau from conducting a full enough survey by year's end.
"What does doing a Census mean if the actual data are too compromised for it to be recognized as an actual enumeration?" Levitt said, adding, "There's nothing that says you can't do a census more than every 10 years."
However, he said, it is too soon to declare defeat. "I don't think that we're at the point that a request for an extension means failure yet," he said. "Right now, we might need a little extra time to finish the homework assignment."
To fill out the questionnaire online, or for more information about how to respond, visit 2020census.gov.