Arun Venugopal: Welcome back to The Takeaway, I'm Arun Venugopal in for Tenzina Vega. The Trump administration's handling of the 2020 census was already a contentious issue before the start of the pandemic, but a series of announcements from the administration over the summer have cast further doubt on the accuracy of the final count. At the end of April, the Census Bureau said they'd continue sending census workers door-to-door until the end of September. Door knocking was originally scheduled to end on July 31 but was delayed due to the pandemic. Now, recent reporting by NPR reveals that the Census Bureau will stop knocking on doors in San Diego and other parts of the country on September 18. Meanwhile, a lawsuit led by the National Urban League is attempting to extend the count deadline until the end of October. The lawsuit also takes issue with the presidential memo issued by President Trump calling for the exclusion of undocumented immigrants from the apportionment count of the census. Joining me today is Hansi Lo Wang, NPR national correspondent on the 2020 census. Hansi, thanks for being here.
Hansi Lo Wang: Thank you for having me, Arun.
Arun: All right. Between various kinds of fear-mongering meant to ostensibly discourage people from filling out their form and now this, meaning the pandemic, this has been seen by many people as the census Apocalypse, just the worst. Is it actually?
Hansi: Well, this is a very unusual situation for the census to be going through. It is clearly a mess right now, but there have been so many last-minute changes in the middle of a pandemic, in the middle of historic hurricane season. These are all factors that are raising the risk of an inaccurate and incomplete headcount of every person living in the country as the Constitution requires every 10 years. The impact here, it's really hard to overstate it, because these are numbers that determine helpful representation and federal funding are distributed to states and local communities for the next 10 years.
Arun: When you look at the numbers, the people who are actually responding, state-by-state, do you see the worst fears of census advocates bearing out or do you think it's not quite as bad as that?
Hansi: It's really hard to say, as a member of the public, exactly how things are going. There are multiple indicators that the Census Bureau puts out, but the thing to keep in mind here is that Census Bureau Research has shown that the most reliable and the more accurate way of collecting information for the census is collecting it from what they call self responses. That is households, on their own fill out a form. Whether that be this year online at my2020census.gov, or they call a toll free number, or they mail back a paper form they've received in the mail. Those are the ways to get information that the Census Bureau says is more likely to be accurate. Right now, about 4 and 10 households have not done that nationwide. The Census Bureau is relying on its door knockers to visit those households to try to get those households counted. There are numbers the Census Bureau is putting out showing how far long that work is going, but it's not clear whether that's being done solely through in-person interviews. It could be through what the Census Bureau calls proxy interviews, that is relying on neighbors, building managers to essentially be a proxy for folks who are not responding and collecting information that way. Or if it's just interviews that are not very complete, and that all has implications on the data that ultimately is collected and ultimately is used and relied upon for so many things, including redrawing of voting districts.
Arun: Is it possible to tell how the pandemic is influencing the way this census has been conducted?
Hansi: The Census Bureau is already requiring its workers, those door knockers to wear face masks. They are trained to conduct socially distance interviews outside if possible, which is very hard in places like New York City where there are a lot of apartment buildings, where a lot of the folks who have not responded are living in these apartment buildings. How to socially distance? That's a major challenge facing census workers. The pandemic has already delayed so many operations for the 2020 census and that is why originally, the Trump administration, including President Trump, called for more time, not less, to conduct the census that originally, because of the pandemic, the counting was supposed to continue through October 31. That got moved up a month over the summer. I broke that story, the end of door knocking September 30. Now, we are under this uncertainty because there are two federal lawsuits, one in California, we have this new temporary restraining order that essentially, the judge is saying Census Bureau hit pause. We're going to further investigate what's going on here as part of the Federal lawsuits, but in the meantime, this judge is saying stop winding down what you already have wind down until a hearing is held on September 17th.
Arun: Is there any indication that the Trump administration is trying to influence the senses for certain political gains?
Hansi: I've been trying to figure that out. I think the thing what we do know is that there was a mysterious about-face from the Trump administration. Again, in April, you have President Trump's saying during a White House press conference, that the Census Bureau essentially needed more time, and Congress should extend legal deadlines. You have the Trump administration officials asking Congress to do that, to push back reporting deadlines for the 2020 census, the first one of which is December 31st, 2020. That's when the first state population counts from the 2020 census are due to the President. Then you have this mysterious about-face. At the end of July broke the story that door knocking was going to end earlier. The Census Bureau said we're going to try to meet that December 31st deadline. The only thing that I've seen that has changed is this memo that President Trump has put out, a memo calling for unauthorized immigrants to be excluded, not from the census in general, but specifically, from the census numbers that determine how many seats in Congress each state gets. That first set of census results that currently federal law says are due by December 31, but you've top Census Bureau career officials saying since May, that it is no longer possible to deliver those population counts, those state population counts to the president by December 31 because of the pandemic.
Arun: There's really no precedent for this level of chaos in the census. Is there?
Hansi: This exact set of circumstances? No, but every census comes with its own set of unique challenges. I think this one where you have a pandemic going on, you have these ongoing lawsuits that are really disrupting things as well as this really heated political climate where there's so much anti-immigrant rhetoric as well as a high level of government distrust. These are these final weeks of the count where the Census Bureau is trying to convince these households that have not yet participated, this is a time where they make their last pitch essentially and try to do it through in-person visits and there are so many factors against them right now.
Arun: Hansi Lo Wang is the NPR national correspondent on the 2020 census. Hansi, thanks for coming on the show.
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