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Leaked Files Show Trump's Ability To Alter Census May Come Down To The Wire

Leaked documents show there's a possibility that the Census Bureau will not be able to produce numbers for congressional apportionment in time for President Trump to exclude unauthorized immigrants from the count before leaving office.
Patrick Semansky
Leaked documents show there's a possibility that the Census Bureau will not be able to produce numbers for congressional apportionment in time for President Trump to exclude unauthorized immigrants from the count before leaving office.

Documents obtained by the House Oversight and Reform Committee confirm the Census Bureau may not be able to release a key set of numbers from this year's national head count until after the end of President Trump's term.

The files, which the committee says it obtained from an unnamed source, suggest Trump's unprecedented effort to exclude unauthorized immigrants from those numbers could be undermined by inconvenient timing regardless of how the Supreme Court rules in a case the justices heard this week over whether the administration can carry out a memo Trump issued earlier this year, as NPR and other news outlets have reported.

Three lower courts have already blocked Trump's directive after finding it violated a federal law that calls for the counts used to reallocate votes in Congress and the Electoral College to be based on the "whole number of persons" in each state, as the Constitution also requires.

Still, the timeline for the census results remains a "fairly fluid" situation, as the administration's attorney, acting Solicitor General Jeffrey Wall, told the Supreme Court during oral arguments on Monday.

Wall noted that senior officials at the bureau have indicated it "remains possible" to produce some of the data needed to carry out Trump's memo in January.

The internal documents released by the committee on Wednesday show the exact release dates are moving targets and appear to be edging closer to Trump's last day in office on Jan. 20.

Aslide deck dated Nov. 19 confirms the earliest previous release date was Jan. 26, but another document dated about a week later — Nov. 27 — shows that date moved up to Jan. 23.

Still, the Nov. 27 schedule shows that the state-by-state count of unauthorized immigrants needed to carry out Trump's plan is not expected to be finished until Feb. 3 — two weeks into the administration of President-elect Joe Biden, who said on Tuesday he hopes the Supreme Court "does the right thing" by rejecting Trump's memo.

Even if Trump manages to get the needed data before leaving office, however, it is an open question whether the clerk of the House of Representatives, which remains under Democratic control, would certify altered apportionment counts after the president completes the legally required handoff to Congress.

The other documents shed more light on what the bureau continues to publicly describe as "processing anomalies" that are expected and "similar" to the bureau's past experience.

The bureau has identified more than a dozen irregularities affecting over a million records from the 2020 census.

One anomaly involving records of students living in dorms could result in a "significant overcount" in some college towns, according to one document. A coding error, the Nov. 19 slide deckwarns, could affect the final population counts and the demographic data generated by the census if it isn't corrected.

The document outlines an 11-step process for using "patches" to try to fix these errors. "If the sequencing of patch deployment isn't executed properly," the slide deck says that "may result in other data anomalies."

Newly uncovered irregularities, the document also notes, would require more time to fix.

In a statement, the Census Bureau says the anomalies "are being resolved as expeditiously as possible." Michael Cook, the bureau's chief spokesperson, tells NPR that the agency has deployed more computer servers, developers, testers and subject matter experts to help with processing the census results.

"No shortcuts are being taken when it comes to patching the software to correct these anomalies, or others that may be discovered as data processing continues," the bureau's statement adds.

The House Oversight Committee had asked the bureau to release all of its internal documents related to these anomalies by Nov. 24.

But the bureau missed that deadline and told the committee that the documents were not approved for release in time because of "concerns about ongoing litigation," according to a letter from the committee's chair, Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who oversees the bureau.

Maloney, who has also scheduled a hearing on the census for Thursday, has now set Dec. 9 as a new deadline for Ross to produce the documents — or face a subpoena.

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Hansi Lo Wang (he/him) is a national correspondent for NPR reporting on the people, power and money behind the U.S. census.
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