Counting for this year’s census is done, and the final tally is likely to be delivered by Dec. 31 — before the new president is inaugurated. However, census experts say the incoming Biden administration has an opportunity to support the U.S. Census Bureau and restore some of the public’s trust in the headcount after a tumultuous year.
Statisticians, researchers and former census bureau leaders have warned that the 2020 census could be one of the least accurate counts in history, due to the pandemic and the Trump administration’s political interference in a typically apolitical process.
Census consultant Terri Ann Lowenthal said President-elect Joe Biden, after his inauguration, could reverse President Donald Trump’s executive orders pertaining to the census. She said Biden could also appoint a new cabinet member to lead the U.S. Department of Commerce, which oversees the census bureau.
“A Biden administration will send an important signal to the census bureau — and to the public, which in some cases has lost confidence in the integrity of the census process — that the new president will honor and lift up the work of the scientific experts at the nation’s largest statistical agency,” said Lowenthal, a former congressional staffer on the census oversight subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives.
She also said Biden’s election could change the tenor of the debate in Congress about key bills that could extend the census deadline, giving the bureau more time for the crucial data processing stage. That’s where the bureau removes duplicate responses, identifies fraudulent entries and essentially fills in all the missing gaps. Normally, the bureau takes about five months for data processing; this year the agency is doing it in about half that time.
“Prior to the election, most Republican senators didn’t want to cross the White House by supporting an extension of these reporting deadlines and giving the census bureau more time,” Lowenthal said. “But now that the election is over, those dynamics of influence have changed.”
She said she hopes Congress will move quickly to pass a bill that includes provisions about the census.
Robert Santos, chief methodologist at the Urban Institute and the incoming president of the American Statistical Association, said he hopes the new administration will move quickly to address the political interference from the White House in the workings of the census bureau.
“I would hope and expect that one of the first things that Biden would do would be to remove the … political appointees that were inserted into the census bureau in the last few months, but that’s [his] call,” Santos said.
Last month, Santos and a task force of a dozen scientists, researchers and former census bureau directors released a report warning about massive undercounts in the 2020 census — especially among communities of color — leading to numbers that may not be fit for use. The report also called on the bureau to release granular-level data to carry out an assessment of the quality of the count by outside experts.
Santos said when Biden takes office in January, the efforts to examine that data can “go into full swing.”
Ultimately, however, Santos said, “The census data are going to be what they’re going to be, and they have to be used — for better or worse — for congressional seat allocation and for state legislative redistricting.”
The question remains whether the Biden administration, Congress, and researchers can work together to make adjustments that account for undercounts in many parts of the country, including Illinois and Chicago, which stand to lose up to two congressional seats and billions in federal funding.
The U.S. Census Bureau has not responded to WBEZ’s question about whether it has received instruction from the commerce department on how to work with the incoming Biden administration.
Esther Yoon-Ji Kang is a reporter for WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her on Twitter @estheryjkang.