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After Census Bureau announces early end to its count, fears of a skewed tally rise

WASHINGTON — The Census Bureau confirmed late Monday that it plans to cut four weeks from the schedule for finishing its count of the nation’s 330 million residents, a turnabout that census experts said would deeply imperil an accurate tally of the population.

In a statement posted on its website, the bureau said the updated schedule “reflects our continued commitment to conduct a complete count, provide accurate apportionment data, and protect the health and safety of the public and our workforce.”

But the change is a retreat from the bureau’s statement only months ago that the pandemic had made it necessary to ask for more time to complete the count on schedule. And census experts have said that shortening the calendar for the count would wreak havoc with efforts to reach the very hardest-to-count households — immigrants, minorities, young people, and others — that have long been flagged as most likely to be missed in this year’s tally.

Critics called it an unvarnished attempt by the Trump administration to twist the nation’s population count to exclude groups that, by and large, tended to support Democrats.

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Representative Carolyn Maloney, Democrat from New York, chairwoman of the House Oversight committee that has jurisdiction over the census, said the new schedule would “rush and politicize the 2020 Census” in a letter sent Tuesday to Steven Dillingham, the Census Bureau director.

Maloney noted that Dillingham did not mention the schedule change in testimony to the committee last week and said she would summon career Census Bureau experts to testify about the impact of the change.

The bureau has offered no explanation for the change. But outside experts said the explanation was clearly rooted in politics — in particular, in a demand by President Trump last month to exclude immigrants in the United States illegally from the population totals that are used every 10 years to reallocate House seats among the states.

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Slammed by the pandemic, the Census Bureau had said earlier that it wanted to delay its final delivery of population totals to the White House until April, rather than the statutory deadline of Dec. 31. The speedup announced late Monday effectively rescinds that request and assumes that the totals will be delivered by year’s end — before any new president or Congress might take office.

That gives the White House its best opportunity to act on Trump’s effort to remove immigrants in the country illegally from the reapportionment totals, assuming that a lawsuit challenging his directive fails. Many legal experts said the president’s demand for altered population totals would violate the Constitution, which calls for a count of all the nation’s residents.

The Census Bureau already has collected information from roughly 63 percent of the nation’s households, all of which completed the 2020 survey online, by mail, or by telephone. Monday’s schedule change primarily affects the count of some 60 million households that have failed to fill out census forms, but it also compresses the time left for tallying a number of other groups, including the homeless and residents of group quarters like nursing homes and dormitories.

All of those counts normally would be completed this month, and some before that. In mid-April, however, the Census Bureau said that delays caused by the pandemic had forced it to extend the deadline to Oct. 31. The latest schedule change will move that deadline up by one month, to Sept. 30. The effect is to shorten to six weeks what had been a 10-week period reserved for completing the count, so that the data can be compiled and processed in time to deliver population totals by year’s end.

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