There is a lot going on in politics these days. We are less than three weeks from a presidential election. The campaign has had so many twists and turns. A debate scheduled for this week was called off and now there are dueling town halls Thursday night from the candidates.
Washington appears to be consumed by two huge stories at the moment: First, the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett. Second is the ongoing negotiations for another coronavirus-related stimulus package.
But there was a third story out of Washington on Tuesday that may have a lot of impact on the lives of Americans, set the table politically for fights coming right after the election, and influence politics well after a president not named Trump or Biden takes the reins.
The United States Supreme Court issued an emergency order to allow the 2020 Census to stop counting people immediately. This was a win for the Trump administration, which has been fighting battles to end the Census count for months.
The Census was supposed to be over in August, but since it was essentially put on hold in the spring during the early lockdown months of the coronavirus, the counting was extended to Oct. 31. Then, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said the Census would conclude at the end of September. That sparked a lawsuit and a federal judge in Northern California said the administration had to stick with Oct. 31.
A three-judge appeals court also in Northern California agreed. That was appealed all the way to the Supreme Court, which didn’t rule on the underlying matter, but said in a 7-1 unsigned decision Tuesday that the administration could stop the census, while other lawsuits are pending. Given that the end of October is only in two weeks, it basically means the census is over.
Still following? Even if you’re not, this has three big implications:
1. There could be an undercount of residents, particularly in Democratic areas
Yes, there is a lot of politics going on here. The Trump administration has been on record already fighting in court for the ability to exclude noncitizens from the once-in-a-decade count even though the Constitution is very clear that all residents, regardless of immigration status, be counted.
An undercount would give Republicans an advantage. The census is used to draw maps and assign congressional districts for the next 10 years. Typically the hardest people to count are immigrants fearful of government workers, minority communities, and younger, transient people who all tend to live in urban, Democratic-dominated areas. The more people counted in Democratic areas means more Democratic US House members and state legislators. The opposite is the case for Republicans.
It’s a raw political maneuver.
The Trump administration says the undercount claims are overblown. The Census Bureau said Wednesday “well over 99.9% of housing units have been accounted for in the 2020 Census.” Then again, that is based on an estimate of what the Trump administration thinks the count should be and maybe not what it actually would be.
2. Actual money is at stake
For some states, the Census matters a great deal in terms of political power in Washington. Some states will lose representatives, while others will gain them. In New England, only Rhode Island might see a huge change. That state is on the bubble of going from two US representatives to just one.
But for states like Massachusetts, the Census has a big impact on how much federal money will proportionally be given to the state. This applies for both social services money and for items like roads and bridges and public transportation.
Again, if there is any undercount then Republicans believe their areas would get a bigger piece of the federal money pie.
3. It previews a big post-election political drama
When the matter went to the courts, the Trump administration couldn’t say they wanted the Census over because they wanted to undercount people for partisan advantage. What they cited was a law saying that the White House has to give a full report of the count to the House Speaker by December 31.
Democrats have said that the count should continue and that if the White House gives the report by April, then it is fine given that there is a pandemic going on. Of course, Democrats were being a little clever themselves on that timeline. In April, there could be a new president in the White House named Joe Biden; at the end of December there won’t be.
But isn’t the count, the count at that point? Apparently not. The Trump administration says they will take the findings, somehow strip out any non-citizens and then give that number to the House.
It’s doubtful Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will be good with that idea. What happens next is unclear.