John Raoux / AP

Census Pulls Back on Year-End Delivery Commitment, Pushes Decision to Career Staff

Rushing in an effort to truncate the data processing timeline has "some risks," bureau official admits.

The Trump administration is no longer promising to meet its statutory deadline to deliver state-by-state counts from the decennial census, with officials instead vowing to give themselves “flexibility” to blow past the end-of-year timeframe. 

The administration had pushed to end its enumeration of every person in the country early so it could meet the deadline, but a court order forced the Census Bureau to keep the count past Sept. 30. Only a Supreme Court intervention allowed Census to stop its count before Oct. 31. After ending the enumeration, which the bureau said led to data collection from more than 99.9% of all households in the United States, Census employees will now transition into processing and cleaning up data for final apportionment counts. 

“It is our plan right now that if we need more time to fix a problem that comes up that would impact the quality of the census, we’re taking it,” Al Fontenot, the bureau’s associate director of decennial census programs, told reporters on Wednesday. “We did not say we were going to be able to meet the Dec. 31 deadline. That provides us with the flexibility if we encounter unexpected challenges to deal with them and handle them before we actually present the documents.” 

That decision, he said, will be made by career officials at the bureau. Fontenot added there is no “hard stop” and the agency will “maintain flexibility to get the job done in a quality way.” 

Census officials, Commerce Department Secretary Wilbur Ross and President Trump have all at various times said it was no longer possible to meet the Dec. 31 deadline to deliver data from the count due to delays already implemented after the novel coronavirus pandemic took hold. Those delays caused Census to develop a new plan in which it would continue counting through Oct. 31 and deliver data in April 2021, but it subsequently changed those deadlines to Sept. 30 and Dec. 31, respectively. Watchdogs such as the Commerce inspector general and the Government Accountability Office have found the truncated timetable risks an incomplete and inaccurate count. The Trump administration said in federal court it must meet its statutory obligation to deliver data by the end of the year, though it now appears to have backed away from that deadline. 

Tim Olson, Census’ assistant director for field operations, said the bureau overcame significant obstacles to complete its field work. 

“Conducting this census, with all of its compounding complications, has been without question the greatest challenge any of us who manage census have ever encountered in our lives,” he said. Olson added he is proud of the bureau’s accomplishment, despite any possible shortcomings: The early data show “a very good census, if not an accurate census, was conducted during an unbelievably trying time for our nation.” 

Fontenot said faster computing power, and a shift from five-day to 24/7-processing, will enable the bureau to at least come close to meeting its deadline to deliver data by the end of the year. He said it is still unclear if the agency can deliver redistricting data by its March 31, 2021, deadline. Pushing all work on the redistricting numbers until after the apportionment data is complete will help expedite the latter information, he added. Fontenot also said Census will separate out any work on Trump’s memorandum to remove undocumented immigrants from the redistricting data, the legality of which is currently pending before the Supreme Court. The associate director said he was not “going to speculate on the feasibility” of implementing that memo. 

All told, Census hired more than 528,000 temporary workers to knock on doors and complete the count. It collected data on 24% of households that did not self-respond to the census questionnaire through “proxy interviews”—a process by which enumerators gather information on households by talking to neighbors, landlords or others—almost exactly in line with that rate in 2010. Nearly 6% of households were enumerated using administrative data, which Census uses when it cannot complete an interview to get information. 

New technology allowed the bureau to operate more efficiently than ever before, with enumerators completing almost twice as many cases per hour as in 2010. While it will depend on similar advances to complete its data processing in an expedited timeframe, Fontenot acknowledged there could be some hiccups. 

“Does that have some risks?” he said. “Yes it probably has some risks.” He said Census is currently banking on a “reasonably smooth” processing stage, but if that does not occur it will require the agency “to take additional time.”