'It's Going To Be A Herculean Task': Shortened Census Time Stresses Hard-To-Count LA

The U.S. Census logo appears on census materials received in the mail. (Photo Illustration by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

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The U.S. Census Bureau has announced it will complete the 2020 census count a month earlier than planned, with the new deadline to end door-knocking and self-response set for September 30, instead of Oct. 31.

The bureau also intends to have data compiled for political apportionment finished by the legal deadline of December 31st.

Doug Johnson, a research affiliate with Claremont Mckenna, thinks given delays in response caused by the pandemic, that timeline is impossibly scrunched.

"They're going to try to get everything done on the regular timeframe, but it's going to be a Herculean task," Johnson said.

In-person canvassing doesn't even start in L.A. County until August 11.

And so far, only 59% of households in the county have responded.

It means census workers will have less than two months to count the other 41%, which is an unlikely goal.

So, Johnson said, it's very likely historically undercounted communities like renters, immigrants, and people without internet access could be missed by a rushed census. That's because those communities are typically best reached in person.

"They need that door-to-door knock to get the full count," he said.

A BIG PROBLEM FOR LA COUNTY

In L.A. County, considered one of the hardest-to-count regions in the country, these changes are a particularly big problem, especially considering California's political representation was already to take a hit due to population losses.

The decision to end the counting a month early has been criticized by many as politically motivated.

"It is difficult to come up with any explanation but Republican and white advantage," said Keshia Morris Desir, the census project manager for government watchdog organization Common Cause.

In a letter to the Census Bureau on Monday, Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer asked that the government explain the basis for its decision.

Ending the census earlier has another implication. Johnson said if the count continued through October, as was planned, the data might not be crunched until next year, at which time President Trump may no longer be in office — and wouldn't be presiding over the final census tallies that determine political representation for the states.

In addition, with the process shortened, Johnson expects the Census Bureau will need to do extra work to estimate the county's population, like using survey and post office data to determine information about households left uncounted.

Typically, this estimating process is kept to about 2% of the nation's households, he said, but this year it could end up being much higher.

"Obviously it adds a degree of randomness and inaccuracy to the count," Johnson explained.

And while the bureau can approximate general numbers, courts have ruled that they can't approximate race data. That means undercounted racial and ethnic groups wouldn't be accurately represented.

Laura Daly, a data analyst with racial justice organization Advancement Project California, said identity information is critical for protecting communities from redistricting, for example, or identifying which demographics are particularly hard hit by COVID-19.

"If you don't exist in the data, then people take advantage of that and decide not to represent you," Daly said.

Daly said her group is working to resolve confusion over the timeline change, and to encourage people to self-respond through food drives and car caravans.

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