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Secretary of State William F. Galvin threatens to sue if Massachusetts is shortchanged in Census count

At stake: one of the state’s nine congressional seats

Massachusetts Secretary of State Bill Galvin.
Massachusetts Secretary of State Bill Galvin.Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press

Secretary of State William F. Galvin is raising concerns that alleged misconduct and a series of mistakes by this year’s census takers could lead to a dramatic undercounting of Massachusetts residents and a loss of one of the state’s nine seats in Congress.

The 2020 Census estimated the state’s population as of July at 6.8 million, which would be enough to preserve the nine-member delegation, Galvin said. But Galvin has kept track of dozens of false entries, omissions, and mistakes by census takers in Massachusetts that he believes could reduce numbers from the estimate.

If the final number, due to be delivered to President Trump on Dec. 31, is 455,000 lower than the estimate, the state would drop to eight members of Congress, Galvin calculates. If that happens, Galvin said he will sue the census.

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The Trump administration “has attempted to sabotage the 2020 Census every step of the way,” said Galvin, “and I am under no illusions that President Trump will not try one more time to shortchange areas that vote for Democrats, if he is given the opportunity.”

Districts for the 435 seats in the US House of Representatives are redrawn each decade based on the census, with fast-growing states sometimes gaining seats at the expense of slower growing ones. Based on the preliminary estimates, the states most likely to lose members of Congress as a result of population changes since 2010 are Alabama, California, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and West Virginia.

But Galvin, who is the state’s liaison to the US Census Bureau, believes that Trump has used the census as a political tool to punish Democratic states such as Massachusetts, which went overwhelmingly for Biden in the 2020 election.

The Census Bureau issued a statement late Wednesday saying the agency is “hard at work” processing data.

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“As issues that could affect the accuracy of the data are detected, they are corrected,” the statement said.

The Census Bureau plans to deliver “a complete and accurate state population count” in early 2021, the statement said, “as close to the legal deadline as possible.”

Under federal law, the Census Bureau must send official population numbers to the president of the United States no later than Dec.31. In January, the president must report those numbers to the House of Representatives, along with the number of congressional seats to which each state is entitled based on the population data.

It’s unclear whether the Census Bureau will meet the deadline, but delays in the final census report don’t comfort Galvin. He fears Trump may try to remove residents who are not citizens — more than 1 million of whom live in Massachusetts — from the population numbers before sending them to Congress. Foreign-born residents have always before been included in federal census counts, Galvin said.

Galvin, whose office received daily updates on census data, said he spotted troubling trends between the time the count began in late March and ended abruptly in September.

Many residents didn’t receive mailings directing them to fill out questionnaires online. They didn’t receive follow up mail-in questionnaires either, Galvin said.

And when census takers finally started going door to door in June, their effort was too little too late, Galvin said. College students, for example, who are typically counted as residents of the community where they study, were gone. Other residents had moved temporarily because of the pandemic.

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“The effort was very sporadic,” said Galvin.

In August, Galvin started noticing anomalies in the daily data.

“The numbers didn’t make sense,” he said. “They would show a 5 percent increase in households (in one community) in one day . . . We knew they were bogus.”

He said his office was contacted directly by census takers who said they were directed to fabricate questionnaires. A census taker in Framingham said that he was instructed to mark down that he spoke to someone when he visited a home, whether or not he actually did.

In November, the Associated Press reported that two census takers, including one in Massachusetts, said their supervisors pressured them to enter false information into a computer system about homes they had not visited so they could close cases during the waning days of the census count.

Maria Arce said her supervisor in Massachusetts offered step-by-step instructions in how to trick the system, the Associated Press reported.

“It was all a sham. I felt terrible, terrible. I knew I was lying. I knew I was doing something wrong, but they said, ‘No, no, we are closing. We have to do this,’” Arce said.

A census spokesperson told the Associated Press that the agency was looking into the allegations, but they did not provide further details.

At the time, in mid- to late-September, census workers were drawing close to a deadline imposed by Trump’s administration to finish the count by the end of the month.

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Galvin said he tried to improve the census count in certain neighborhoods by arranging with local organizations, such as food pantries and churches, to set up opportunities for census takers to collect information from multiple families at once.

That effort was cut short, Galvin said, when the Census Bureau abruptly suspended counting in late September — a month earlier than expected.

If the census count in Massachusetts ends up substantially under the preliminary estimate, Galvin believes Western Massachusetts is the area most likely to lose a seat.

But Massachusetts has considerable clout in a redistricting fight. US Representative Richard Neal from Springfield is chair of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, US Representative James McGovern of Worcester is currently chair of the House Rules Committee, and Representative Katherine Clark was recently named assistant speaker, the fourth-highest ranking Democrat. Her district extends from Revere to Southborough.

Mayors expressed concern that census undercounting might hurt their communities beyond the potential loss of a Massachusetts member of Congress.

“I worry about this administration’s attempts to undermine a fair and accurate census count,” said Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh. “Not only is the census critical in determining congressional representation, it’s an important tool that impacts how a host of federal resources that cities and towns rely on are allocated. Everyone must be counted.”

Lawrence Mayor Daniel Rivera said, since the count ended 30 days before it was supposed to, the population of his city was substantially undercounted.

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“This isn’t just a process,” he said. “Federal funds are all based on the census — it means less block grant money, school lunch money, public safety dollars. The census counts for everything we do.”

“If they had counted everyone, we would have had a huge celebration,” he said.


Andrea Estes can be reached at andrea.estes@globe.com.