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Duggan, Tlaib say they'll challenge Detroit census count

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

Detroit — Mayor Mike Duggan and U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit, announced plans Wednesday to challenge the U.S. Census Bureau's "deficient and haphazard counting effort," saying they expect the city's population tally to come up short. 

The leaders say they are concerned the Census Bureau did not make a good-faith effort to accurately count the number of people in Detroit and will be gathering facts to prove whether that's true.

Tlaib is also looking into congressional oversight and gathering evidence to potentially request an additional count, as Mayor Coleman A. Young did by filing a federal lawsuit over the 1990 census.

U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan speak on challenging the U.S. Census Bureau in a possible undercount on Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2020.

"Any shortcuts, as we all know during the pandemic, will impact our families for a decade and some of that impact is irreparable," Tlaib said. "We do have a current administration that has been given a number of subpoenas, a number of requests for evidence in regards to the census because other communities are seeing the same exact thing: shortchanges, the process being implemented unfairly."

There was concern before the process began when the Census Bureau did not open an office in Detroit, Duggan said. 

"The Census Bureau cut their budget, scaled it back and there was no Detroit office or Detroit focus, they ran it out of Chicago," Duggan said. "That told us right off the bat what the commitment of the federal government was to make sure the city was counted accurately."

Detroit led an intense effort for the highest return rate and despite the pandemic, Duggan said, succeeded by having the same self-response rate from a decade ago.

The Census Bureau started non-response follow-ups early in July, sending canvassers to areas with under 50% response rate. Michigan wasn't added until Aug. 6 and workers were deployed to Lansing and Oakland County, which had an 80% response rate, one of the highest in Michigan.

On Aug. 11, Detroit was added, with plans to work through Oct. 31. 

Duggan, who worked as a census taker in 1980 in Ann Arbor, said it looked like "an intentional strategy by the Census Bureau to not count Detroit."

"We started hearing stories about a bunch of positions that aren't filled and the bureau wouldn't disclose any information," he said. "The self count went up faster in every city in America during the non-response follow-up than it did in the city of Detroit. Cleveland was well behind us when the response started and then went way past us, which suggests there were people in the streets working in a far more diligent way than they were in Detroit."

The city's planned challenge follows the Supreme Court Oct. 13 decision to allow the Trump administration to end the census count early.

"Information indicated Detroit was behind the rest of the state. Now, magically, it's all 100%. It's amazing how that happened as soon as the court ruling determined it was all concluded," Duggan said. "The truth of the matter is, they started later in Detroit, understaffed Detroit and shut it down early for one reason: there appears to be a national strategy to undercount cities.

"I may turn out to be wrong about this," he added. "Ten years ago when the city was undercounted, everyone was stunned. This time, we're not waiting. There's a legal process, we're going to gather the evidence and follow it"

Duggan is asking census workers to report their observations about the Detroit census count by calling 866-20-COUNT or emailing info@20count.com.

"Just tell us the truth of what happened. Were you out working full days? Did you have the appropriate lists? What areas did you go to and did you have proper supervision?" Duggan said. 

The Census Bureau did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday. 

Tlaib said she's committed to holding the administration accountable, as she represents one of the poorest communities in the nation, with residents who will be directly affected.

"I knew something was wrong when they cut that many regional offices," she said. "We can't allow further impacts. If it's being reported that a certain thing actually went through the process and it didn't, then, of course, we have an action here to making sure that we hold the federal government accountable."

Earlier this month, Census Bureau officials told The Detroit News canvassers were working overtime amid the COVID-19 pandemic to reach rural areas of northern Michigan and pockets of Wayne County that remain undercounted.

Nearly 99% of Michigan households were noted as counted during the first week of October, the bureau said, adding that still leaves out an estimated 55,000 households.

That could cost Michigan more than $450 million in federal funds per year, said Kerry Ebersole Singh, executive director of Michigan 2020 Census.

Duggan couldn't give an estimate of how many people are in Detroit, but said he knows the population has increased significantly since 2010. The city will look into DTE Energy power usage and school counts to identify if there's been an undercount after final census numbers are released.

Clois Foster worked as a Detroit Census captain and numerator during the 2020 count.

Clois Foster, who served as a city census counter and numerator, said she was overlooked while being hired. She received the wrong identification number and was delayed on being assigned cases and noted disorganization within the department's process.

"There were people quitting as fast as they were hiring," she said. "As far as proxy’s it was unsafe and unorganized. Somedays, I didn’t get cases until 5 p.m. when I would put my time in from 10-8 p.m. I almost quit myself. My manager left and my supervisor never got back to me when I had problems."

The courts should not interfere with efforts to meet a year-end deadline for turning in numbers used for divvying up congressional seats by state, Department of Justice attorneys said recently in court papers.

The headcount is expected to return in December, but Duggan said "we can't be scrambling in December if they got it wrong," and will be spending the next two months gathering information for a potential appeal. 

All further court challenges to the Trump administration’s numbers-crunching methods for the 2020 census should be suspended as the U.S. Census Bureau works toward turning in apportionment numbers by a congressionally-mandated Dec. 31 deadline, Trump administration attorneys said.

The Trump administration filed the court papers in response to a request from U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh in San Jose, California over how the case on the census’s timetable should proceed following the Supreme Court ruling. A hearing on the matter had been set for Tuesday but it was postponed until next month.

Koh last month issued a preliminary injunction that allowed the head count to continue through Oct. 31 instead of Sept. 30, and the numbers-crunching to proceed through the end of April 2021 instead of Dec. 31. The district judge sided with a coalition of local governments and advocacy groups that had sued the Trump administration, arguing that minorities and others in hard-to-count communities would be missed if the counting ended in September.

srahal@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @SarahRahal_