Litza Gabriela Padilla, left, and Lilian Bucso holds Census signs in different languages at The City’s Census Week of Action event on Thursday, Sept. 24, 2020. (Samantha Laurey/Special to S.F Examiner)

Judge rules that census must not be rushed

A U.S. District Court judge issued a preliminary injunction Thursday evening that blocks the U.S. Census Bureau from the ability to shorten two key time frames in the preparation of the 2020 census.

U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh barred the defendants — the U.S. Department of Commerce and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, and the Census Bureau and Director Steven Dillingham — from shortening the deadlines for gathering and processing data and for reporting the tabulation of the total population to President Donald Trump.

The plaintiffs — a group including the National Urban League and the cities of San Jose, Los Angeles and Salinas – — sued the defendants based on a decision by Ross and Dillingham to accelerate deadlines in an operational plan implemented after the pandemic made the original plan unworkable.

The court found that the effect of the change was to reduce “the time for the 2020 Census from 71.5 weeks to 49.5 weeks. The preliminary injunction entered by the court will restore the earlier deadlines.

In her 78-page opinion, Judge Koh found that Defendants chose “speed over accuracy” and that “the result of this significant compression in these extraordinary times will be inaccuracies in the tabulation of total population.”

The accuracy of the census is significant because the results are used to determine congressional representation and are also used in apportioning federal funds distributed to the states. According to the plaintiffs, “undercounted cities, counties, and municipalities will lose representation in Congress and tens of millions of dollars in funding. And, communities of color will lose core political power and vital services.”

The suit challenged changes made in the operational plan that guided the bureau’s data gathering and processing for the decennial census. The initial plan was up-ended by the pandemic, and in April, revisions to the plan reset and extended a number of the deadlines in the initial plan.

However, on Aug. 3, Ross and Dillingham abruptly changed course and shortened the deadlines in the revised plan. According to the plaintiffs, the staff at the Census Bureau believed that the shortened deadlines would prevent a complete and accurate count.

One of the internal documents quoted by the court was an email between Census Bureau employees, which stated “we need to sound the alarm to realities on the ground…it is ludicrous to think we can complete 100 percent of the nation’s data collection [by the revised deadline]… and any thinking person who would believe we can deliver apportionment [by the revised deadline] has either a mental deficiency or a political motivation.”

In a statement issued after the court’s opinion, plaintiffs’ counsel Melissa Arbus Sherry stated, “a full, fair, and accurate count takes time, especially when faced with a historic pandemic. Every day that the 2020 Census count continues, and Census operations appropriately continue, will help ensure the accuracy and completeness of this once-in-a-decade tally.”

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