A federal court issued an injunction Thursday night ordering the Trump administration to halt its efforts to change the census calendar and to continue counting efforts for another month.
The U.S. Census Bureau initially extended the count’s deadline to Oct. 31 after the rollout of counting efforts was severely slowed by the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the agency later announced it planned to wrap up field operations by Sept. 30. The ruling, filed by U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh with the District of Northern California, blocks the latter change of date. Koh filed the ruling on the grounds that a shortened schedule risked an inaccurate count of historically underrepresented groups.
The case was brought before the court as the latest development in a lawsuit filed by a coalition of organizations and local governments including the National Urban League, the city of Los Angeles, and others. The lawsuit was one of several filed after the Census Bureau announced its intent to cease counting early.
Census data collected every 10 years is used for a variety of purposes, including the reapportionment of congressional representatives and the drawing of districts as well as allotment of federal funding for public services. In many areas that have historically been difficult to count accurately, officials are appreciative of the extra time to get an accurate count.
“We value any time and effort well used by the bureau to get an accurate count in our area,” said Devin Neeley, a spokesman for San Juan County, New Mexico.
Forty-one percent of New Mexicans live in areas that are considered hard to count. In San Juan County, the Navajo Nation is a historically undercounted area because of a limited central addressing system and a lack of widespread internet and phone connectivity.
Before the ruling, some government officials expressed concerns about the deadline change. New Mexico’s congressional delegation and governor, who are all Democrats, decried the date change in a news release earlier in September. The state’s governor, Michelle Lujan Grisham, even went as far as to say that states may push for a reopening of the census enrollment period in 2021 if former Vice President Joe Biden wins this year’s presidential election.
“Should there be a change in the White House, I would expect that the National Governors Association asks the Biden White House to have a special census enrollment period, like re-enrollment period, like they do for Medicare when things don’t quite work out right,” Lujan Grisham said in a meeting of the governor’s advisory council on racial injustice.
Critics have said that the Trump administration’s efforts to shorten the census period is a partisan move intended to benefit Republicans because many of the areas frequently undercounted are Democratic areas and areas with high populations of people of color. However, the administration has said that the shortened schedule was enacted with the goal of making sure the data can be finalized by the end of the year.
The Justice Department has indicated it intends to appeal the ruling; however, Koh’s injunction finds that the groups that filed the lawsuit are likely to succeed overall in arguing that the date change was arbitrary.
The Census Bureau strives for a nationwide enumeration rate of at least 99%. As of Sept. 24, both New Mexico and Colorado were below that threshold; New Mexico had a 94.4% response rate and Colorado had a 96.5% response rate.
John Purcell is an intern for The Durango Herald and The Journal in Cortez and a student at American University in Washington, D.C.