New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and NYC Census 2020 Director Julie Menin go door-knocking to encourage New Yorkers to complete the census in South Richmond Hill, Queens, on July 29.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and NYC Census 2020 Director Julie Menin go door-knocking to encourage New Yorkers to complete the census in South Richmond Hill, Queens, on July 29. Ron Adar/

Leaked Census Document Warns of Possible 'Serious Errors' in 2020 Count

The compressed timeframe is forcing the agency to make sacrifices, document shows.

The Census Bureau is concerned about errors and inaccuracies threatening its decennial count, according to an internal document made available by House Democrats, as the agency attempts to complete its work under a compressed time frame. 

Census had sought to push back its deadlines after getting off to a late start earlier this year due to the novel coronavirus, but abruptly scratched those plans after Congress failed to adjust its statutory deadlines. While bureau officials have publicly said the integrity of the count would not be impacted, the leaked presentation warned a series of options for adjusting plans or eliminating activities would all create risks. 

The presentation, dated Aug. 3, appeared to be prepared for Commerce Department Secretary Wilbur Ross, according to House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairwoman Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., who said the document showed the new Census schedule “could significantly degrade its accuracy and completeness.” Census officials said in the presentation they prepared it “in response to your request to provide an apportionment count by the statutory deadline of Dec. 31, 2020.” Maloney said it was not prepared for lawmakers and was obtained from a source other than Census leadership. 

The document laid out options and strategies to maximize Census staff and production to complete field data collection by Sept. 30 and compress processing to deliver apportionment counts by the end of the year.  

"All of these activities represent abbreviated processes or eliminated activities that will reduce accuracy,” Census wrote in the document. Census has revised its deadline to finish collecting responses from Oct. 31 up to Sept. 30. The agency will also have just three months to process data for apportionment, instead of its normal five.

Census officials proposed reducing contacts to households to ensure complete and accurate responses, hastening the development of its list of all addresses, shortening review periods and cutting verification processes. Such steps increase “risks of inaccuracy,” could lead to "serious errors not being discovered in the data" and would bring "virtually certain vocal objections" from state demographers and governors. 

The bureau also laid out its plan to postpone delivery of redistricting data, saying it would be “negatively impacted under this revised plan and we are determining full impacts.”

The document suggested proposals for incentives to address staffing concerns. Census has said it needs 435,000 enumerators to complete its work, but as of Aug. 22 had less than 300,000 on staff. A Government Accountability Office report last week found the Census Bureau’s late decision to push up the deadline to complete its decennial count has heightened the risk of inaccuracies, as the agency is struggling to retain employees, ensure its technology functions properly and otherwise adapt to shorter timeframes for each step of its operations.

During a recent briefing with the oversight committee—the details of which Maloney also made available Tuesday—Al Fontenot, associate director for decennial census programs, and Tim Olson, Census’ associate director for field operations, both said more time would be beneficial. Olson said he is most concerned with external factors such as hurricanes preventing Census from completing its work.  

“It doesn’t matter how many bodies I send in, or how much money we try to spend, we may not get there by Sept. 30, just because of conditions out of everybody’s control,” he said. “That’s what keeps me up at night.”

Maloney sent a letter to congressional leadership on Tuesday requesting legislative action to push back Census’ deadlines. 

“The new information obtained by the Oversight Committee makes clear that Congress must act now to fulfill our responsibility under the Constitution to help ensure an accurate and complete count for the 2020 Census,” Maloney wrote. “If we do not, our constituents—both Democrats and Republicans—could be directly harmed.”