WASHINGTON — The Census Bureau confirmed late Monday that it plans to cut four weeks from the schedule for finishing its count of the nation’s 330 million residents, a turnabout that census experts said would deeply imperil an accurate tally of the population.
In a statement posted on its website, the bureau said the updated schedule “reflects our continued commitment to conduct a complete count, provide accurate apportionment data, and protect the health and safety of the public and our work force.”
But the change is a retreat from the bureau’s statement only months ago that the pandemic had made it necessary to ask for more time to complete the count on schedule. And census experts have said that shortening the calendar for the count would wreak havoc with efforts to reach the very hardest-to-count households — immigrants, minorities, young people and others — that have long been flagged as most likely to be missed in this year’s tally.
On Tuesday, four former directors of the Census Bureau issued a statement warning that a shorter deadline “will result in seriously incomplete enumerations in many areas across our country,” and urged the administration to restore the lost weeks.
The directors, who served under both Democratic and Republican presidents, also urged Congress to have a trusted body of experts develop metrics to assess the quality of the bureau’s population totals. And they called on the census bureau “to make transparency and openness a priority” to ensure outsiders that the count is being fairly and honestly conducted.
Other critics, particularly Democrats and advocates for the poor and minorities, called the change an unvarnished attempt by the Trump administration to twist the nation’s population count to exclude groups that, by and large, tended to support Democrats.
Representative Carolyn Maloney of New York, the Democratic chairwoman of the House Oversight committee that has jurisdiction over the census, said the new schedule would “rush and politicize the 2020 Census” in a letter sent Tuesday to Steven Dillingham, the Census Bureau director.
Ms. Maloney noted that Mr. Dillingham did not mention the schedule change in testimony to the committee last week, and said she would summon career Census Bureau experts to testify about the impact of the change.
“This is a whole systemic attack on the census for political gain,” Julie Menin, the census director for New York City, said in an interview. “There’s an intentional attempt here to basically steal the census — to politicize this census to gain Republican seats across the country.”
The bureau has offered no explanation for the change. But outside experts said the explanation was clearly rooted in politics — in particular, in a demand by Mr. Trump last month to exclude undocumented immigrants from the population totals that are used every 10 years to reallocate House seats among the states.
Slammed by the pandemic, the Census Bureau had said earlier that it wanted to delay its final delivery of population totals to the White House until April 2021, rather than the statutory deadline of December 31. The speedup announced late Monday effectively rescinds that request and assumes that the totals will be delivered by year’s end — before any new president or Congress might take office.
That gives the White House its best opportunity to act on Mr. Trump’s effort to remove undocumented immigrants from the reapportionment totals, assuming that a lawsuit challenging his directive fails. Many legal experts said the president’s demand for altered population totals would violate the constitution, which calls for a count of all the nation’s residents.
The Census Bureau already has collected information from roughly 63 percent of the nation’s households, all of which completed the 2020 survey online, by mail or by telephone. The schedule change announced Monday primarily affects the count of some 60 million households that have failed to fill out census forms, but it also compresses the time left for tallying a number of other groups, including the homeless and residents of group quarters like nursing homes and dormitories.
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All of those counts normally would be completed this month, and some of them well before that. In mid-April, however, the Census Bureau said that delays caused by the pandemic had forced it to extend the deadline to October 31.
The latest schedule change will move that deadline up by one month, to September 30. The effect is to shorten to six weeks what had been a 10-week period reserved for completing the count, so that the data can be compiled and processed in time to deliver population totals by year’s end.
Beyond reversing the bureau’s request for a delay in April, the decision to compress the schedule also effectively overrides recent public statements by senior career employees at the Census Bureau that delivering accurate population totals by December 31 would be impossible.
“We can’t do that anymore,” the census official leading field operations for the count, Tim Olson, told a Native American organization during a webinar in May. The associate director of the census, Albert E. Fontenot Jr., echoed that last month, saying “we are past the window of being able to get those counts” by year’s end.
The Census Bureau said in its announcement that it plans to mount “a robust field data collection operation” to meet the new deadline, and that it would be able to complete the 2020 census in a short time “without sacrificing completeness.” But beyond saying it would hire more people and give its army of door-knockers awards for extra work, it has offered few details of how it plans to meet the new goal.
Outside experts, including directors of past censuses, have said a shortened count would inevitably fail to reach many of the hard-to-count households in both inner cities and rural areas, and that the bureau would be forced to use statistical techniques to make educated guesses about who lived in them.
Serious inaccuracies would not only affect numbers used to reapportion and redraw political districts, but also would skew the baseline that will be used to allot trillions of dollars in federal grants and other aid to the states until the next census in 2030.