What a new administration means for census & redistricting

The Biden administration will immediately be faced with the enormous task of ensuring that census data is accurate.

President Donald Trump notoriously shattered normal procedure at nonpartisan agencies across government during his presidency, pasting together in its place a hodgepodge of party loyalists, discriminatory actions, and unprecedented corruption.

Perhaps nowhere was this destructive mode of governing more clear and more consequential than at the U.S. Census Bureau. 

It began with failing to fully fund the census a few months after Trump took office in 2017. The Bureau requested “a 21 percent increase for 2017, or $290 million…Trump’s 2018 budget represent[ed] no increase at all.” 

And then began the Trump administration’s crusade to add a citizenship question to the standard census form for the first time since 1950. The administration’s hopes was to use citizenship data to exclude undocumented immigrants from the tally of residents sent to states for purpose of redistricting, with the goal of ultimately reducing the representation in Congress of states with significant numbers of such immigrants, such as California. This agenda was blatantly unconstitutional, given the Constitution’s clear mandate that the census account for the “actual Enumeration” of “all persons” residing in America, not just citizens.

That career Bureau officials thought it was a bad idea was clear — they repeatedly sounded the alarm, on and off record, about how such a question would decrease self-response rates and imperil an accurate count. They had surveys and data to back their position up.

But Trump didn’t budge. And neither did his Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, who took office and immediately began plotting on how to add the question to the census. 

The Trump administration’s scheme to add the question centered on the Department of Justice disingenuously claiming to the Bureau it needed the citizenship data to enforce voting rights laws. The scheme prompted national outcry and litigation that ultimately made its way to the Supreme Court, where the administration’s actions were slapped down with an embarrassing declaration that such reasoning was “contrived.”

But even an adverse ruling from the highest court in the land wasn’t enough to derail Trump’s attempts to sabotage the census. Next came attempts to have “citizenship data [ ] compiled in connection with the census by other means” — namely, through an executive order requiring agencies to share citizenship data with the Census Bureau. And, in the midst of a pandemic, Trump’s attacks on an accurate count reached their apex when his administration chaotically manipulated the census deadlines, curtailing the time needed for census workers to complete their work in the field surveying American households. Through Herculean efforts by census workers on the ground, and despite of the political obstacles placed in their way, 67% of American households self-responded to the census, and over 99% of households were ultimately surveyed after nonresponse follow up by census workers in the field. 

Now, a new administration will have to deal with the fallout of Trump’s actions and their effect on the redistricting process as well. Gathering the census data is one thing. Analyzing it and preparing it for delivery to the states for purposes of congressional apportionment is another. It’s unclear what the Biden administration will find at the Bureau when it evaluates the aftermath of the Trump administation’s actions.

In an important development this week, Steven Dillingham, Trump’s Director of the Census Bureau, announced his resignation:

Dillingham, who was appointed to lead the agency by President Donald Trump in early 2019 and confirmed by a voice vote in the Senate, was not set to leave the post until the end of this year.

Pressure has been mounting on Dillingham and the bureau, following the Commerce Department Office of Inspector General’s sending a memo last week alleging that he was pressuring bureau employees to rush a technical data report on the number of unauthorized immigrants in the country. After the OIG memo was made public, Dillingham said in a letter that he ordered those involved to “stand down” on that technical report.

Several key Democratic lawmakers told POLITICO last week that Dillingham should resign, or be removed from his post by President-elect Joe Biden, following the OIG report.

Fresh leadership at the Bureau is key — apolitical, experienced leadership who will prioritize the accuracy of the data that will be delivered to the states for apportionment of seats in Congress. 

American Progress has outlined some steps the Biden administration can take towards that goal, one of which is assessing the quality of the data gathered thus far. One step Biden can take (and likely will in his first days) will be to rescind Trump’s executive order on the census, forbidding agencies from sharing citizenship data with the Bureau and restoring trust in the process. 

With that order, Biden can begin what will be slow but necessary work: rebuilding what the Trump administration broke, and building back better the reputation, morale, and accuracy of the Census Bureau.