Massachusetts officials warned Wednesday that a Supreme Court decision allowing the Trump administration to halt the census count early could result in a botched final tally, even as federal officials asserted that the vast majority of households in the state had already been counted.
The disagreement underscored the high stakes of the most logistically challenging and politically contentious count in recent memory. The census is used to calculate federal funding and determine congressional seats; for Massachusetts, roughly $16 billion is on the line.
“We have parts of our city that are going to be undercounted,” Mayor Martin J. Walsh said in a phone interview on Wednesday, adding that a low count would curtail funds for housing and food aid in the city.
The Census Bureau has said that while only 69 percent of households in the state “self-reported” online, by phone or mail, census employees successfully counted the rest by going door to door, achieving a 99.9 percent completion rate. But local officials and census experts believe that number is far too optimistic because, they say, federal officials are purposefully painting a too rosy picture and because in-person counting is much less reliable than self-responses.
“It’s fictional to talk about 99.9 percent,” said Secretary of State William F. Galvin, the state’s official liaison to the 2020 Census, who has been involved in two previous counts. “The whole concept of short-circuiting this thing and ending it early when it’s had so many problems is so transparently deceitful.”
Census experts agreed that the high completion rate didn’t present the full picture.
“Does it mean they have knocked on every door, they have talked to somebody in that household, and gotten responses from everyone living there? Absolutely not,” said Terri Ann Lowenthal, a longtime census consultant based in Connecticut.
Lowenthal pointed out that just because a household has been “counted” doesn’t mean it has been counted accurately. For example, instead of direct interviews, census employees can rely on proxies, like neighbors or landlords, as well as administrative data, both of which are more likely to result in incorrect information.
Galvin said census officials have declined to provide municipal-level data to the state about where people had responded and where the gaps were. This makes it impossible to determine where more outreach is necessary, or even how many of the 30 percent of people who did not self-respond were legitimately counted by census officials, he said.
Galvin is also skeptical of the high number touted by the Census Bureau because his office has been working to address some of the challenges to in-person counting — like getting access to apartment buildings — even as federal officials said the counting was finished.
“The numbers have been very erratically rising,” he said.
Federal census officials disputed that notion. Jeff T. Behler, regional director of the census, said that it was too labor intensive to provide municipal-level data to the state but that he was confident the count had been comprehensive.
“We have knocked on every address. We have gotten a response from nearly all of the addresses in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts,” Behler said in an interview.
In the absence of specific data, state officials and advocates fear tallies will be low in such historically hard-to-count communities as Lawrence and Chelsea, which have high populations of renters, immigrants, and college students. The same cities have been hardest hit by the coronavirus and rely the most on federal aid distributed using census data.
“We are very concerned,” said Eva Millona, executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition and chairwoman of the state’s 2020 Complete Count Committee. “It’s about resources. It’s about political power.”
From the start, the 2020 Census has been marred by political interference and hampered by the pandemic. First, the Trump administration’s failed effort to add a citizenship question sent terror through immigrant communities already wary of sharing information with authorities. Then the coronavirus forced a massive national operation to rapidly transition from in-person to digital.
The most recent obstacle arose after the Trump administration sought to end the count a month early, claiming that the Census Bureau needed extra time to deliver results by the end of December. A collection of local governments and civil rights groups sued, but on Tuesday the Supreme Court said that the administration could halt the tally ahead of schedule.
Governor Charlie Baker said at a news conference Wednesday that “getting the census count right is critically important.”
“This is one where a few extra weeks of collection, especially given the impact of the pandemic and people’s ability to do door-to-door work, would always be better,” Baker said.
Galvin said the Census Bureau told him that door knocking will end at 11 p.m. on Thursday, while self-responses will end early Friday. The state had planned census outreach at early voting sites this weekend, Galvin said, but was required to cancel those events.
“Any day, they’ll have a balloon drop to say they’re finished,” he said. “Even though we know we’re not.”