A project meant to be a decade in preparation, the 2020 census, still faces a number of uncertainties, which experts warn could lead to an inaccurate count with potentially large effects on federal spending and congressional maps.
Though a pending Supreme Court decision over a citizenship question has dominated much of the conversation, other hurdles include the Census Bureau's overall funding, cybersecurity concerns and untested methods.
“A really good way to screw up the American economy and waste a lot of taxpayer money is to have a bad census,” said Andrew Reamer, a George Washington University professor who studies census data.
Census data influences the flow of billions of federal dollars and thousands of business decisions, Reamer said, ranging from population surveys to assessments of market penetration.
The 2020 census is not the first to face last-minute challenges. Before the 2000 census, for instance, the Supreme Court banned the planned use of statistical sampling. Problems with handheld electronics during the 2010 census required the bureau to reintroduce paper enumeration.
Each time, addressing those issues took massive amounts of work and infusions of federal funds to keep the process rolling. Experts say the Census Bureau could find itself in a similar last-minute scramble over the next few months.
Experts said the Trump administration's decision to add a citizenship question could raise the cost and risk undercounting noncitizens. That could have an outsize impact in states with higher immigrant populations.
The administration's move rocked preparations for the decennial count, as congressional Democrats and advocates argued noncitizens might not respond.
States and civil rights groups sued in 2018, alleging the decision violated administrative law. Trial judges in three separate cases agreed, and the administration appealed, arguing that the bureau needs the citizenship question responses to help enforce the Voting Rights Act.
In April, the Supreme Court heard the case. The government asked the justices to rule before the end of June so it can finalize the questionnaires for printing. Then, late last week, advocates revealed they hold documents suggesting a deceased Republican redistricting strategist served as the source of the question, intending to draw congressional maps for GOP political advantage.
Democrats, including Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, D-New York, co-leader of the House Census Caucus and a leading Democratic voice on census issues, argued the documents demonstrate a deliberate attempt to turn the census into a political weapon.
“This is not a smoking gun. This is a confession of the Trump administration's illegal attempt to hijack the 2020 census and remake the political landscape of America in their own Republican district image,” Maloney said.
A group of Democratic senators also requested a probe by the Commerce and Justice department inspectors general.
Advocates hoped to submit the documents in full to a federal judge in New York, and informed the Supreme Court, but there was uncertainty about whether the justices would consider them in deciding whether to allow the question.
Defenders of the citizenship question have said that even if noncitizens do not respond to the questionnaire, they may still be counted by the census' follow-up operations. But that drop in self-response, which the bureau calls the “gold standard” in terms of counting, could make the census more expensive by tens of millions of dollars.
The bureau has estimated that for each percentage point of households that don't respond to the census, it costs an additional $55 million to do in-person enumeration.
Census Bureau researchers have estimated the citizenship question may reduce the response rate among noncitizens by 5%, pushing them into the more expensive in-person process.
That report estimated the cost of the census could increase by more than $120 million as a result of the citizenship question.
House appropriators aim to allocate billions of dollars for the Census Bureau in anticipation of next year's count, including $8.45 billion in the fiscal 2020 Com-merce-Justice-Science bill approved by the House Appropriations Committee on May 22.
That blew past the administration's request of $6.1 billion for the 2020 census, a request the committee's Democratic majority called “disingenuous” for relying on $1 billion in carryover funds and congressional action to address any shortfalls.
Democrats also included a ban on funding to execute the citizenship question in the legislation. However, final appropriations likely won't be enacted until months after the forms have been printed, making the effect limited.
The Senate version of that legislation hasn't been introduced yet, and it's not certain when that will happen. The Commerce-Justice-Science Appropriations ranking member Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-New Hampshire, said before the congressional recess that their talks are in limbo until a broader overall spending deal can be reached.
A shutdown or continuing resolution to keep the government open past Sept. 30 could disrupt census preparations, leaving the bureau without the resources to hire staff, open offices and take the other steps needed before the census launches in January.
Even if the bureau eventually gets that money, timing could be an issue. For the past several years, Congress and the administration have missed the deadline for annual appropriations bills, instead operating on short-term continuing resolutions that extend government spending at current levels.
That could leave the Census Bureau billions of dollars short of what the administration has said it would need, at $3.5 billion in appropriated funds in the current fiscal year. The Census Bureau's current operational plan would have it hiring thousands of staff, opening hundreds of offices and finalizing its address list for 2020 during the fall.
Once the Supreme Court settles the citizenship dispute and Congress settles funding issues, the actual operation of the census will start with initial tallying in Alaska.
As recently as May 31, the Government Accountability Office has raised hundreds of issues with the census, ranging from the scheduling of in-person counting work to its fraud prevention program, and designated it a “high-risk” issue for the government.
In response, the Census Bureau told Congress it has taken steps to address gaps, hiring staff for contract monitoring, cost management and scheduling. Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham told House appropriators in May that the census is “on time and on budget,” and the agency intends to meet goals such as hiring all of its 1,500 local outreach staff by July.