Federal judge extends Census deadline. Detroit says it’ll help.

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City officials celebrate the extended deadline for the census response and say more time is needed to get an accurate count especially for historically undercounted communities like Detroit.(Photo by Ralph Jones)

Detroit officials are among many that can take a temporary sigh of relief as a federal judge extended the Census 2020 deadline at the 11th hour, giving the city more time to count its residents. 

Last month, the Trump administration made an abrupt decision to end the decennial census count a month earlier than expected, putting cities like Detroit at risk for being undercounted.  But now a federal judge has ruled against the shortened deadline. 

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U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh in the Northern District of California issued a preliminary injunction late last week extending the time for census responses back to the original extended date of Oct. 31. 

“I am very pleased that they are extending the time for the enumeration because I believe we need every bit of that time to follow up in Detroit,” said Victoria Kovari, who is leading Detroit’s 2020 Census effort. “We still have apartment buildings, low response census tracts, immigrant communities and poor neighborhoods that really need extra time to follow up on so I’m very grateful to the court.” 

Census 2020 deadlines and what they mean  

It’s important to know that the Census has a few different deadlines. 

  • Deadline for enumeration: This is the last day to collect census responses to count the population. The deadline has been extended to Oct. 31.  
  • Deadline for reapportionment: This is when the Commerce Secretary has to deliver the final census count to the president. The latest state population numbers, which must be delivered by Dec. 31, are used to redistribute congressional seats and Electoral College votes among the states.
  • Deadline for state governors: The third deadline is when data have to be given to each state, which is used for redistricting legislative and congressional seats. It is due no later than March 31, 2021

The current extension has been allowed for enumeration. A COVID-19 Relief Bill has requested an extension for the deadline for reapportionment and state governors to April 30, 2021 and July 31, 2020, respectively. However, those extensions have not been granted as of yet. 

“They’ve been working for months to try to extend the deadlines in the new COVID Relief bill but it hasn’t passed unfortunately,” Kovari said. “And even if the House were to pass a law with the extension attached to it, the question is ‘would the president veto it?’ leaving us in a strange predicament where we have more time to finish the census operation but less time to actually get all the data together.”

Census 2020 accuracy is in jeopardy 

The ruling comes after evidence that showed Census Bureau officials believe the accuracy of the count would be unreliable if the enumeration stopped on Sept. 30. Officials believe that more time is needed to get an accurate count especially after the coronavirus delayed the census for months. 

In the document, Judge Koh stated there were internal Commerce Department and Census Bureau documents that showed that both agencies knew the earlier deadlines could not be met without the risk of a flawed population count and the pandemic gave them legal justification for an extension of the December deadline for delivering data to the president.

Timothy P. Olson, the Bureau’s associate director of field operations, said they are “past the point where we could even meet the current legislative requirement of Dec. 31. We can’t do that anymore.” 

Another document from July said a shortened census would have “fatal data flaws that are unacceptable for a constitutionally mandated national activity.”

“An undercount in any locality matters greatly,” Koh wrote. “Even a small undercount of the subset hard to count population would result in the loss of federal funding.”

These inaccuracies can greatly affect historically undercounted communities like immigrants and people of color, meaning cities like Detroit, which is almost 80 percent Black. 

A fight until the end

However, it seems like the Trump administration will not go down without a fight and is appealing the federal court order. The Justice Department filed a notice last Friday to appeal the order to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which will no doubt further complicate what could be the last few days of Census 2020 counting. 

The Census Bureau responded to the court order in a news release stating it “will comply with the Court’s order and continue our Non Response Follow Up Operation (NRFU). Our office of general counsel is evaluating the ultimate impact of the order on the 2020 Census.”

Enumerators have been told to continue with operations in the meantime. 

Making the last days count in Detroit

City officials did not take any chances and have already “put everything out on the floor” in terms of efforts to get residents to respond, Kovari explained. “We don’t have very much money; our volunteers are exhausted.” 

The city will be doing all it can and encouraging census responses for the rest of the month.

Kovari said they “still planned a big event on the 30th [of September] at Fellowship Chapel” where they passed out $25 gift cards toward groceries and other necessities to those who fill out the census onsite.

“We still have apartment buildings, low response census tracts, immigrant communities and poor neighborhoods that really need extra time to follow up on so I’m very grateful to the court.” – Victoria Kovari

Kovari also plans to join the city’s efforts on Halloween in the D, which consists of Halloween activities for kids and their families at police precincts, fire stations and recreation centers.

“Halloween in the D is going to be a big deal this year because of the lack of door-to-door trick-or-treating because people can drive up to police stations, fire stations and community centers to get candy and hopefully sign up a few more folks right up until the end,” she said.

However, Kovari made it clear that this extension period is primarily to allow the Census Bureau more time for their door-knocking and follow-up operation. The Bureau has hired more people and redeployed enumerators from different parts of the state to Detroit to increase responses, which has a cumulative response rate of 50.6 percent as of Thursday. 

“We’re very pleased about that and we’ve been working closely with the Census Bureau on multiple events with businesses and grocery stores and food sites and churches last week and through the month so this is our big push.”

The city will continue some events in October but is pushing their biggest efforts until the end of September, regardless of what happens with the appeal, Kovari explained.

“This way those extra 30 days will be like gravy.” 

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