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Can A Biden Administration Influence The 2020 Census? It Depends

(Photo Illustration by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
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What's at stake for Southern California in the 2020 Census? Billions of dollars in federal funding for things like health care, public education, even disaster planning. Political representation in Sacramento and D.C. A census undercount could cut critical resources in L.A. County, home to the largest hard-to-count population in the nation.

Counting for the 2020 Census might be over, but controversy over the once-in-a-decade tally will likely continue into the transition between President Donald Trump and President-elect Joe Biden.

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Normally, the state-by-state census data that determines seats in the House of Representatives is sent to the president by the end of the year. Then, the president sends those numbers to Congress. This year, that's legally supposed to be finished by Jan. 10.

If those deadlines are met, President Trump would still be in office then, and could hypothetically give Congress numbers that exclude the estimated number of immigrants without legal status, as he outlined in a memorandum released this summer. This could reduce population numbers, particularly in states such as California.

However, according to reporting from the New York Times, the U.S. Census Bureau can't meet those deadlines, and needs to extend its work into the incoming Biden Administration.

With several census-related lawsuits still ongoing, the coming months are poised to be tumultuous. Here's what to watch for and why it matters to Los Angeles.

Census Bureau Delays

Considering all the delays to the census schedule caused by the coronavirus pandemic, senior Census Bureau officials wouldn't commit to finish processing their data by the end of the year.

"That provides us with the flexibility if we encounter unexpected challenges," said Census Associate Director Tim Olson on a press call last month.

Now, it appears the agency has indeed run into problems.

"During post-collection processing, certain processing anomalies have been discovered. These types of processing anomalies have occurred in past censuses. I am directing the Census Bureau to utilize all resources available to resolve this as expeditiously as possible," Census Director Steven Dillingham wrote on the agency's website.

Officials may need to take until Jan. 26, or possibly into February, to release the initial census results, according to the New York Times.

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Former Census Director John Thompson, who left the post in 2017, believes census employees may be feeling emboldened by the election of President-elect Biden and could feel more confident about releasing information on the quality of the 2020 count.

It's unclear what ramifications the bureau or the outgoing president could face for missing the legal deadlines to have data produced and shared with Congress.

"It's uncharted territory," Thompson said.

Justin Levitt, a professor at Loyola Law School, expects that if data processing extends into Biden's term, the new administration would likely bring a change of pace.

"I think a Biden Administration will want to spend more time making sure it's right rather than making sure it's quick," said Levitt, adding that the count may have still been irreversibly harmed by the Trump administration's pressure to finish early.

Supreme Court Case

At the end of November, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments to decide whether immigrants without legal status can be removed from the census numbers, before those numbers are used to divide up seats in Congress. If the Trump Administration is allowed to proceed with this plan, California's political power would take a big hit.

"L.A. County would almost certainly be the most heavily impacted by that decision," said Doug Johnson, a researcher and redistricting expert with Claremont McKenna College.

If the estimated population of immigrants without legal status was removed from the census numbers, the populations of California and Los Angeles would appear much smaller than they actually are. Without these immigrants included, Johnson predicts that California would lose up to four seats in Congress and as many delegates in the Electoral College.

Johnson says this is still a pretty weak threat. And it's still unclear how those who are not in immigration custody would be counted.

"I'm not aware of anyone who really thinks President Trump is going to win that battle," Johnson said. According to the U.S. Constitution, the basis for apportionment should include all residents living in the country.

Thomas Saenz, president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, (MALDEF) believes the outcome of that case could influence President Trump's involvement in the census schedule.

"If he's told he cannot remove the undocumented, then his incentive to accelerate the creation of apportionment data may go away," Saenz said.

Saenz said he's hopeful that, if given the chance, the Biden Administration will rescind President Trump's memo to exclude undocumented peoeple and extend the bureau's deadlines for data processing.

Legal Discovery

A lawsuit filed by the city and county of Los Angeles, along with several nonprofit groups, has entered the legal phase of discovery. This means lawyers are asking the federal government to turn over documents and data that could provide a better indication of the quality of the 2020 Census information collected.

L.A. City Attorney Mike Feuer said he believes the count was flawed, but that it's too early to say what remedies he wants from a judge or from the Biden Administration. The incoming president is set to be inaugurated Jan. 20.

"There's a possibility that the new administration could play an important role here, but there are just too many factors to anticipate between now and January 20th to know for sure," Feuer said.

Documents released by the Census Bureau in the coming weeks could show how thoroughly hard-to-count regions, like much of Los Angeles, were contacted by census workers.

Hope For A Depoliticized Census?

It's unclear how the 2020 Census will unfold over the coming months, but some census-watchers are looking to the Biden Administration to depoliticize future counts and reinstate values guiding the Census Bureau under previous administrations.

"What I got was support to be objective and run a statistical agency. That's the way it was," Thompson said, who served the Bureau from 2013-17.

In a tweet this summer, President-elect Biden condemned President Trump's memo to exclude immigrants without legal status from political apportionment.

Biden's tweet read: "The goal of the Census is clear: count every person. But Donald Trump continues to use this vital process to sow division and scare immigrant communities. We won't let him deny communities the funding and representation they deserve. Because in America, everyone counts."


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