White House moves to guard data after Trump census pressure
The Biden White House this month pushed to protect scientific and statistical agencies like the U.S. Census Bureau from political interference in a report issued just days before newly disclosed documents showed the “unprecedented” extent of the Trump administration’s efforts to gain politically from the 2020 headcount.
A report released last week by a White House task force said the American people have a right to expect from their government “accurate information, data, and evidence and scientifically-informed policies, practices, and communications.”
“This requires scientific integrity – based on rigorous scientific research that is free from politically motivated suppression or distortion,” said the report from the Scientific Integrity Fast-Track Action Committee.
Shortly after the report came out, new documents released over the weekend revealed that political appointees in the Trump administration’s Department of Commerce, which oversees the Census Bureau, tried to exert unusual influence on the 2020 census, the nation’s once-a-decade head count overseen by statisticians, demographers and government bureaucrats. The documents, made public through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit by the Brennan Center for Justice and first reported by The New York Times, showed alarm bells going off within the Census Bureau about efforts by political appointees in the Commerce Department to interfere with the count.
“The department is demonstrating an unusually, high degree of engagement in technical matters, which is unprecedented relative to the previous censuses,” said a September 2020 email from Ron Jarmin, who was the Census Bureau’s deputy director, to other top agency officials.
At the time, Census Bureau officials were under pressure to carry out two orders from then-President Donald Trump.
The first Trump directive ordered that people in the country illegally should be excluded from the state population count used for divvying up congressional seats among the states, also known as the apportionment numbers. Even though the U.S. Constitution mandates that every U.S. resident be counted in censuses, Trump said at the time that including people in the country illegally was “part of a broader left-wing effort to erode the rights of Americans citizens, and I will not stand for it.”
The second directive ordered the Census Bureau to gather citizenship information about every U.S. resident using administrative records after the Supreme Court nixed the Trump administration’s effort to add a citizenship question to the census questionnaire. Critics claim the citizenship question was inspired by a Republican redistricting expert, who believed using citizen voting-age population instead of the total population for the purpose of redrawing of congressional and legislative districts could be advantageous to Republicans and non-Hispanic whites. The redistricting expert has since died, but some of the guidance he was giving on redistricting has surfaced publicly.
The deadline for the apportionment numbers was at the end of 2020, but in adjusting to delays from the pandemic, the Census Bureau had sought to release them in April 2021. The Department of Commerce was pushing the Census Bureau to finish by the Dec. 31 statutory deadline while Trump was still in the White House in a move that would have cut in half the time originally planned for data processing.
In August 2020, the Trump administration also decided to end the head count a month earlier than the Census Bureau planned to after making schedule adjustments for the pandemic. That decision was challenged by a coalition of municipalities and civil rights groups and led to a Supreme Court ruling allowing the Trump administration to end census field operations two weeks earlier than planned. An Inspector General report around that time said the decision to speed up the schedule was not made by the Census Bureau and it could jeopardize a complete head count.
The emails released last weekend show bureau officials were “consistently pessimistic” about being able to remove people in the country illegally from the apportionment count by the year-end deadline. Other documents from the records release showed that more than two dozens states had signed agreements to share administrative records on public assistance programs with the Trump administration and that Commerce Department officials were communicating with anti-immigrant and conservative think tanks about the census.
President Joe Biden rescinded Trump’s orders upon taking office in January 2021. The apportionment numbers were released in April, and census numbers used for redrawing congressional and legislative districts were made public in August.
The report from the Biden White House task force used the 2020 census as a case study.
“Since census counts are used for the purpose of redistricting and reallocation of representation in the House of Representatives, these challenges to the 2020 census deadline were viewed as political interference that would undermine the integrity of the census counts,” the report said. “To date, no individuals have been held accountable for these allegations.”