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Local Lawmakers Want Details Before Approving A Census Extension

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This week, the Census Bureau proposed a new timeline for the 2020 count, with most deadlines pushed back by several months to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Those changes require a vote in Congress, but some lawmakers aren't feeling enthusiastic about approving extensions without knowing how the bureau plans to adapt in-person canvassing around the pandemic.

Census officials haven't briefed the House Committee on Oversight and Reform about their response to the coronavirus, despite lawmakers' requests over the last month, according to the committee's Vice Chair, Representative Jimmy Gomez of the 34th District. He said:

"That is the kind of lack of transparency that does not foster trust. It actually continues to undermine our faith that this administration really does want an accurate count."

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Gomez' district covers a swath of Central LA, including Westlake and Koreatown -- high-density immigrant neighborhoods that are among the most historically undercounted in the county.

After speaking with representatives from NALEO Educational Fund, a Latino advocacy group doing outreach to undercounted communities, and with a former Census Bureau director, Gomez believes that an extension is necessary, but he wants the bureau to answer some questions first.

He wants to know if the Census Bureau needs more money to extend field operations and how they plan to reach historically undercounted communities if it isn't safe to send census-takers door-to-door. Plus, Gomez is worried that counting people later in the year, from August to October, might not produce better results.

"During that period of time people are on vacation. You also have hurricane season in certain parts of the country. Then you also have a potential spike of COVID coming back in the fall," Gomez said. "There's a lot to it, and Congress has a role in determining how that is done."

Representative Judy Chu of the 27th District is also hesitant about voting for an extension. This week, she wrote a letter to Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham asking 14 questions about the agency's contingency plans. Chu is worried that changing the census response period might confuse people, and lower overall participation.

"There's so many issues here," Chu said, pointing out that the census form asks people to mark where they lived on April 1, 2020.

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"The further away you get, the harder it is to be accurate."

Besides altering census enumeration, the Census Bureau is asking to delay state apportionment by 120 days. That means the bureau wouldn't determine how many seats in Congress each state gets until April of next year.

Justin Levitt, a political science professor at Cal State Long Beach, said that extension could have consequences on the state and local level. Instead of having county supervisors and city council districts decided by redistricting commissions, the time crunch could leave them to be decided in courts -- without public input.

The House Committee on Oversight and Reform are supposed to discuss logistics of a census delay with census bureau officials next Monday.

For the time being, the deadline to fill out the census via internet, phone, or paper form is still August 14. Curious about why they even ask all those questions to begin with? Check out our census questionnaire explainer.