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EDITORIAL

Census count deadlines must be extended

The US Census Bureau is ending its counting efforts a month early. It's yet another unconstitutional threat to an accurate tally from the Trump administration.

A children's book was displayed at a US Census walk-up counting site in Greenville, Texas.
A children's book was displayed at a US Census walk-up counting site in Greenville, Texas.LM Otero/Associated Press

It has become one of President Trump’s most persistent endeavors: to undermine the US Census 2020 count for purely political purposes. And he has not given up yet.

Last week the agency announced it would stop counting people by the end of September, four weeks earlier than planned. That includes responses by mail, online, or in-person efforts. But the move, apparently to allow the agency to meet its statutory end-of-the-year deadline of delivering data to the president and Congress, would ensure a rushed census, shortchanging communities by rendering an incomplete and inaccurate count.

Let’s not forget the Trump administration has repeatedly tried to hamper the decennial tally, which is used to distribute political power (for instance, how many congressional districts each state gets) and over $1.5 trillion dollars in taxpayer spending. Trump’s most infamous attempt was his administration’s insistence to add a citizenship question, which was essentially a way to scare undocumented immigrants and their family members from being counted. Luckily, the Supreme Court blocked Trump from adding the question last summer.

Less notable but just as alarming was that, throughout the Trump presidency, the US Census Bureau has remained underfunded and operating with reduced resources, even as it geared up for its monumental and multibillion-dollar task of counting the population this year. Plus, the bureau, which is part of the US Department of Commerce, operated without an appointed director for more than a year. And just last month came a memo from Trump to the bureau ordering it to exclude undocumented immigrants from the count in congressional apportionment base because they don’t qualify as “inhabitants.” It’s a blatant attempt to hurt Democratic states, such as California, and deny them of political power — and likely unconstitutional. A coalition of states, cities, and counties, including Massachusetts, sued the Trump administration, alleging it’s an illegal ploy to politicize the census.

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A US Census booth at the Farmers Market in Everett last month.
A US Census booth at the Farmers Market in Everett last month. David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

“You can’t change the rules at this point,” said Massachusetts Secretary of State William Galvin, who oversees census efforts in the state. “The census is not even fully deployed door-to-door here.” Galvin said that the self-response rate in the state stands at 65 percent as of August 4, compared to the national rate of 63 percent. Still, he said he is very worried about Boston’s rate at 53 percent, which trails the census response rates of other major US metros.

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“We need people’s attention focused on this right now,” Galvin said. “I know Boston is preoccupied about COVID-19 but this needs a full court press by the city’s administration and other groups in the city.” Galvin said the cities of Springfield and Lynn are doing better than Boston, with self-response rates of 57 and 58 percent, respectively.

It’s clear that Congress must intervene. Legislation to extend the census statutory reporting end-of-the-year deadline was included in the HEROES Act, the second coronavirus relief bill that the House passed. But, as Galvin said, the problem with Congress is the Senate. “At this point given the emergency, action by a court is what’s really needed,” Galvin said. For instance, Attorney General Maura Healey, who said in a statement that her office would fight to “make sure everyone in Massachusetts is counted and represented in Congress,” could file suit over the deadline.

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One way or another, the deadlines must be extended. In 2010, the Census did not count about 1.5 million Black and Latino residents nationwide. To put it in perspective, that’s the equivalent of two congressional districts. To give just one example of what that undercount means in practice: as the Globe has reported, the city of Chelsea’s undercount may have cost it millions in much-needed aid. This year, people of color are in even more danger of being severely undercounted as the Trump administration sabotages the Census. It must be stopped.


Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.