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The courts must protect the 2020 Census

Federal judges should extend the deadline to ensure an accurate count. And the Supreme Court must uphold the centuries-long tradition of counting all residents.

A full and accurate count of the US population, a tradition dating back to 1790, is currently under threat.Matt Rourke/Associated Press

Every decade, the US government must conduct a full census that counts all the nation’s residents, regardless of their immigration status, according to federal law and a tradition that dates back to 1790. But that hasn’t stopped the Trump administration from attempting to exclude whole swaths of the US population from the count. It now falls to the courts to make sure that this year’s constitutionally mandated count is accurate.

The 2020 Census has faced two threats: First, as the pandemic has made it difficult to get an accurate count on the typical timeline, the Trump administration and the Republicans in the US Senate have thwarted attempts to extend the deadline. And second, President Trump is aiming to exclude US residents who are undocumented immigrants from the count he turns over to Congress.


By law, the count is due to be delivered to the president by Dec. 31 of the census year. The president then passes on the count to the House, which determines how the House’s 435 seats will be distributed among the states. The following April, more detailed data go to the states for legislatures to redistrict congressional and legislative boundaries.

This year, the coronavirus pandemic has posed serious challenges for the Census Bureau in meeting such strict deadlines while fulfilling its duty to fairly and accurately count every resident. That’s why, in April, Trump’s own secretary of commerce, Wilbur Ross, and Census Bureau director Steven Dillingham sought the assistance of Congress to extend the count through the end of October and delay delivery of the apportionment count until April 30, 2021. They also sought a three-month extension of the deadline for redistricting data sent to the states. It’s not unprecedented. In 1810 and again in 1840, census data was late and Congress approved an extended deadline.


While the House complied with Ross and Dillingham’s request to pass legislation extending the deadlines, majority leader Mitch McConnell’s Senate has so far failed to do the same. Advocates who pushed for an extension of the count were back in US District Court Judge Lucy Koh’s court Nov. 13 asking that she reinstate her order to extend the Dec. 31 deadline to April 30, which Koh did initially before the Department of Justice appealed to the Supreme Court, ending the count in mid-October. The advocates argued that people of color and immigrants, populations that have traditionally been undercounted, would not be adequately counted in 2020. In addition, there are multiple allegations made by census takers that they were pressured by supervisors to enter inaccurate data counts in order to meet the shortened deadline, including workers in Massachusetts. The Associated Press reported Koh said she may set a trial date for early next year.

Meanwhile, on Nov. 30, the Supreme Court will hear a fast-tracked appeal for the Trump administration’s bid to exclude undocumented residents from the census. Citing the Constitution’s plain language to count every person — as noted on the Census Bureau’s own website — several lower courts have already ruled against this effort. The case comes on the heels of a June Court decision which ruled against Trump’s efforts to have a citizenship question included in the census, a tactic meant to instill fear in undocumented immigrants so they wouldn’t participate in the count.


So why is the census deadline, and the Nov. 30 hearing, important to the fate of every American?

Having an accurate count of all residents ensures equity across the nation. Census data is used to distribute federal dollars to states for Medicaid and education services like Head Start, among nearly 100 other federal programs. That data also helps local and state governments, as well as businesses, plan future projects based on demographics.

And, of course, the very reason that the census has a target on its back is that it is essential to majority rule, a central principle of our democracy but one that too many Republicans have calculated will usher in their obsolescence. What they seek to rein in, most likely, by curtailing the count is the reapportionment of seats in the US House of Representatives. More Republican seats in Congress and Republican electoral votes relative to the number of Democratic seats and electoral votes poised to swell with an accurate census translates into more power.

The Supreme Court should guarantee undocumented residents are recorded in the census count. Further, to ensure integrity in the count, the courts should honor the Census Bureau’s request that the deadline be extended.

Additionally, census bureau officials, Congress, and residents should be alert for further attempts by the Trump administration to thwart the rule of law — and the rules of simple arithmetic.

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