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After A Disrupted Census, Congress Tries Again To Extend Deadlines For Results

If passed, two new bills in Congress would extend the reporting deadlines for 2020 census results, which are now months overdue after the pandemic and interference by Trump administration officials upended last year's national count.
Paul Sancya
If passed, two new bills in Congress would extend the reporting deadlines for 2020 census results, which are now months overdue after the pandemic and interference by Trump administration officials upended last year's national count.

Updated April 20, 2021 at 2:53 PM ET

A bipartisan group of lawmakers is renewing a push that failed during the previous administration to extend the deadlines for reporting 2020 census results after the pandemic and Trump officials' interference disrupted the count.

If passed, two bills introduced Tuesday could help shield the U.S. Census Bureau from any questions about the legality of numbers and other data it is set to release months after current federal law says they are due.

The bureau has flagged since last April that it needs more time to ensure the accuracy of new census data. The agency is now close to four months late in delivering the state population counts used to reallocate each state's share of votes in the House of Representatives and the Electoral College. That delay also forced the bureau to postpone putting out the data needed to redraw voting districts. That information was due to the states by the end of March.

Both the Senate bill introduced by Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska — and its House counterpart introduced by Democrats led by Rep. Carolyn Maloney of New York, plus Republican Rep. Don Young of Alaska — would push back the deadline for congressional apportionment counts from Dec. 31, 2020, to "not later than" May 1, which in effect means they have to be in by April 30, according to Schatz's communications director, Mike Inacay. Redistricting data would be due by Sept. 30.

"The COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating impact on the Census Bureau's timeframes needed to process the data," Murkowski, whose state of Alaska has the lowest 2020 census self-response rate, said in a statement. "By extending the statutory deadlines, we will better ensure that the United States has the most accurate census count possible."

"An inaccurate Census count would jeopardize Americans' access to over $1.5 trillion dollars for healthcare, roads, job training, and education," said Maloney, chair of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, in a separate statement referring to the estimated amount of federal funding that is guided each year by census data.

Another Alaska Republican, Sen. Dan Sullivan, had announced plans in February to join Murkowski and Schatz in introducing the new Senate bill but is currently not among the co-sponsors. In a statement to NPR, Sullivan's press secretary, Nate Adams, said the senator "hopes that the bill can be taken up and passed as the Census is already well past the statutory deadlines."

Regardless of the legislation's fate in Congress, the bureau is on track to announce the apportionment counts by the end of this month.

A new law that grants extra time would also formalize lawmakers' approval of the bureau's response to the challenges posed by COVID-19. In-person counting efforts started nationwide later than originally planned, and the agency has been taking additional time to sort through the many duplicate and incomplete responses it collected.

In the 1800s, before the bureau was established, the federal government missed similar reporting deadlines for census results, and in response, Congress granted extensions.

Still, delays in delivering the 2020 count's results — particularly those needed for redistricting — have built up agita among many state and local officials who have had to adjust their own schedules to prepare for upcoming elections. The bureau says it's currently planning to start releasing redistricting data by Aug. 16.

Two states — Ohio and Alabama — have filed separate federal lawsuits to try to get the information earlier. Ohio's lawsuit was dismissed by a trial court judge last month, and the state is appealing the ruling.

The states' claims allege that the bureau violated the Administrative Procedure Act by announcing a new schedule for releasing redistricting data with a date that is past the legal deadline, according to court filings. Any changes to those deadlines are expected to at least delay proceedings in these lawsuits and may make some of their claims irrelevant.

"The Census Bureau can simply explain that it is complying with the new statutory deadline," says Jennifer Nou, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School who specializes in administrative law. "Any good agency lawyer would advise the Census Bureau to explain other features of the decision [to delay releasing census results] that are relevant," such as making sure the data are of high quality.

Last year, some members of Congress, led by Maloney and Schatz, tried to extend census reporting deadlines after the bureau announced last April it needed more time.

Those efforts stalled in the then-Republican-controlled Senate after the Trump administration, which initially backed the bureau's revised dates, dropped their support. That abrupt decision came shortly before President Donald Trump announced a push to exclude unauthorized immigrants from the census apportionment counts for the first time in U.S. history — a move that would have required Trump to receive the numbers before leaving office in January. Biden has reversed Trump's policy with an executive order.

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Hansi Lo Wang (he/him) is a national correspondent for NPR reporting on the people, power and money behind the U.S. census.