Why Filling Out the Census Matters amid Court Battle Over the Deadline This Year

Sean Neumann
·5 mins read

Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Census employee helps a New Yorker fill out the census form

Editor's note: On Tuesday, the Supreme Court reversed a lower court who had ruled that the census count should continue through October, according to The Washington Post. Instead, the count could end immediately. In a lone dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote that "respondents will suffer their lasting impact for at least the next 10 years."

Government officials said last Tuesday that the count would end two days later, the Post reported.

All but .1 percent of housing units had been included, according to census officials, though it was not clear how many people might not be counted by the count ending early.

The below article was originally published on Oct. 1.

The U.S. Census Bureau said this week it aims to stop collecting data by Monday, though the final date is still being litigated over in federal court only days away from the deadline.

The official end for collecting census information has repeatedly shifted this year, in part due to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and because of confusing messaging from government officials within the Trump administration.

The Census Bureau posted a brief tweet Monday stating, "The Secretary of Commerce has announced a target date of October 5, 2020 to conclude 2020 Census self-response and field data collection operations."

A federal judge who last week ordered the bureau to continue collecting data through the end of October responded to the latest move — seemingly coming directly from Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross — with shock.

“A one-sentence tweet? Are you saying that is enough reason to establish decision-making? A one-sentence tweet?” U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh responded, according to the Associated Press, after government lawyers told her the new deadline came without a paper trail documenting how the government became set on the Oct. 5 cutoff.

Koh had issued a preliminary injunction last week ordering the government to continue collecting census data through the end of October, the AP reports. She has since indicated she may consider the government's Oct. 5 date as in contempt of her ruling.

RELATED: Stacey Abrams on the 'Power' of the 2020 Census & Teaming Up with Stars Like Kerry Washington

The bureau's census deadline has been in flux throughout the year: The date was pushed back in the spring to Oct. 31, according to CNN, when the coronavirus pandemic disrupted the ability for collectors to go house-to-house. That meant the bureau's deadline for reporting the final data to President Donald Trump was expected to move to April 2021.

However, Secretary Ross last month said the deadline for reporting the count was Dec. 31. According to CBS News, Congress had not authorized an extension to April.

″It is ludicrous to think we can complete 100% of the nation's data collection earlier than 10/31 and any thinking person who would believe we can deliver apportionment by 12/31 has either a mental deficiency or a political motivation," Tom Olson, who leads the bureau's door-to-door collection, wrote in a July email between bureau officials, which was obtained by CNN.

A late-August report by the Government Accountability Office said delays caused by the pandemic and the "compressed timeframes" implemented by the administration put the census at a high risk of not obtaining "a complete and accurate count" of the U.S. population.

In response to that report, and growing concern about a possibly inaccurate and incomplete count, the agency planned to address the issue "in the coming days" prior to the Monday deadline, bureau spokesman Michael Cook told PEOPLE. But he would not comment further.

The process has also been tinged by partisanship, as the Trump administration has unsuccessfully sought to add a citizenship question to the census and to exclude immigrants who entered the country illegally.

Why Filling Out the Census Matters

Filling out the census, which is conducted every 10 years, determines how many seats in the House of Representatives each state receives. So an accurate count ensures that, as states grow bigger and smaller between decades, their number of lawmakers accurately shift as well.

The census also helps determine how much federal money is allocated to local communities, according to experts.

The count is determined both through self-reporting online, over the phone and by mail and by in-person data collection by census-takers

Census and voting rights activist Stacey Abrams, a former Georgia lawmaker who ran for governor there in 2018, told PEOPLE this summer that ″if you believe that we need to change and need to make progress, the money and the political will is determined by the census.″

″It is the source of economic power and political power, particularly for those who are on the margin or who are the least likely to have power,″ Abrams, 46, told PEOPLE.

The census provides population statistics in U.S. states and territories, which are used in redrawing local voting district maps.

The government also uses the data to determine how to distribute money to different communities around the country — funds used for things like schools and roads.

″It should be seen as a tool for how you can have more investment in your community, have more political power in your neighborhood and how we can have a better stay over policing policies, over environmental policies, reproductive choice," Abrams told PEOPLE. "You name the point of progress or the point of contention, and the more people who are part of the conversation, the more progress we will make: That's what the census guarantees us, that we are included for the next decade."