The Census is due in a week. What happens if it’s incomplete?

Amid congressional debate over a new Supreme Court justice and a second COVID stimulus package, Washington is faced with another divisive challenge: the race to complete the 2020 Census by its now-shortened deadline of Sept. 30.

The Census shouldn’t be a partisan issue. Many on both sides of the aisle recognize the importance of successfully completing the once-a-decade national headcount that determines the number of House seats, the apportionment of $1.5 trillion in federal funding, infrastructure planning, and so on. President Trump initially agreed with this, urging Congress in April to pass a 120-day extension on the legal deadlines in light of the growing public health crisis. But in July, the administration abruptly changed its stance, around the same time Trump issued a now-court-blocked memorandum to exclude undocumented immigrants from the apportionment count.

The Census deadline has since been cut short one month from the previously approved plan of Oct. 31. Recent Republican proposals for coronavirus relief included $448 million in funding for the Census but no additional time to conduct the survey. On Monday, the Inspector General’s office at the U.S. Department of Commerce—tasked with overseeing the Census Bureau—released a report stating “the accelerated schedule increases the risks to obtaining a complete and accurate 2020 Census.”

What happens if the Census doesn’t reach its target of reporting 99% of the population ahead of the deadline? According to the report, not even “senior Bureau officials know what will occur.” The report adds that if the goal isn’t reached, it must be decided to either continue data collection after the deadline—or use the data it has already collected for decision-making.

“There are risks either way,” the report states. “If data collection ends before 99% completeness is met in every state, the Bureau will not achieve what it views as an acceptable level of accuracy and completeness. But, if data collection extends beyond Sept. 30, 2020, that will either further condense an already compressed schedule for data processing—which carries its own risks—or the Bureau will miss the Dec. 31, 2020, statutory deadline,” (the date in which the numbers must be presented to the President).

Additionally, internal bureau emails and memos shared between senior officials—released last weekend owing to a federal lawsuit in California—state that shortening the collection deadline down to Sept. 30 to meet the Dec. 31 statutory deadline “will result in a Census that has fatal data quality flaws that are unacceptable for a constitutionally mandated national activity.”

Attorneys for the Justice Department, according to NPR, maintain that Congress is the only authority that can step in and resolve the problem. But legislation has failed to pick up steam thus far, despite a recent bipartisan Senate effort to push the tallying deadline back to Oct. 31. It remains to be seen if any such legislation will pick up momentum in time; Congress is currently attempting to find agreement on another COVID stimulus package ahead of the break in early October.

On Tuesday, the bureau reported that more than 95% of U.S. households have been tallied so far in the Census. Roughly 30% were counted from field Census takers, while 66% of respondents submitted information online or via phone or mail. Still, 17 states currently lag behind a 95% total response rate, which Census officials clearly believe is enough to dramatically skew the results of the effort. Louisiana, Montana, and Alabama have the worst rates of response at 90.4%, 90.3%, and 89.1%, respectively. West Virginia, Idaho, and Hawaii sit at the top with 99.8%, 99.8%, and 99.5%, respectively.

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