Updated 12:35 p.m. ET Tuesday
With the coronavirus pandemic disrupting plans for the ongoing 2020 census, the Trump administration is asking Congress to pass a law that would change major deadlines that determine the distribution of political representation and federal funding for the next decade.
The Census Bureau is requesting that lawmakers extend the legal deadline for the bureau to deliver to the president new state population counts used to redistribute congressional seats and Electoral College votes among the states — by four months to April 30, 2021, from Dec. 31, 2020, according to a statement released Monday by Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who oversees the bureau.
The bureau is also asking Congress to give it four more months to provide census data to state redistricting officials in order to redraw voting districts across the country. That deadline would move from March 31, 2021, to July 31, 2021.
If approved, the request could throw a wrench into redistricting plans in many states. New Jersey and Virginia are set to redraw legislative districts next year before their filing deadlines for off-year state elections in 2021, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
More than 70 million households across the U.S. have already participated in the constitutionally mandated head count either online, over the phone or through the mail, but that's only about half of those who were supposed to receive mailings with instructions on how to respond on their own.
Others still may need to be counted by a census worker in person, but the bureau announced on Monday that it's planning to further postpone census field operations until June 1 and to extend counting to Oct. 31, according to an updated schedule.
Under the shifted timeline, census workers are not set to start door knocking at homes that haven't yet responded until Aug. 11. In remote communities of southeast Alaska and northern Maine, however, in-person counting is now set to resume on June 14, and workers are scheduled to continue leaving paper questionnaires outside of homes in other remote areas around the same time.
But it's not yet clear how and when the bureau will count people experiencing homelessness or households in Puerto Rico. The bureau's latest schedule says those operations need "further review and coordination with outside partners and stakeholders." Forms were originally supposed to be hand-delivered to homes in Puerto Rico by mid-April.
Michael Cook, the chief spokesperson for the bureau, tells NPR in an email that it is the agency's "assessment" that continuing to count the country's population through the end of October means it cannot meet the current legal deadlines for delivering the apportionment count to the president and redistricting data to the states.
Those deadlines are set in Title 13 of the U.S. Code and require an act of Congress to change. During a press briefing at the White House on Monday, however, President Trump said: "I don't know that you even have to ask them. This is called an act of God. This is called a situation that has to be. They have to give it. I think 120 days isn't nearly enough."
The bureau's plans were first made public Monday by Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., who chairs the House Oversight and Reform Committee.
In a press release describing a phone call Ross held with some members of Congress about the plans, Maloney says the committee "will carefully examine" the request to change the census deadlines, while also criticizing the administration for not providing more information and not allowing Dillingham, the bureau's director, to brief the committee about its plans in response to the pandemic.
"If the Administration is trying to avoid the perception of politicizing the Census, preventing the Census Director from briefing the Committee and then excluding him from a call organized by the White House are not encouraging moves," Maloney said in the written statement. "The Constitution charges Congress with determining how the Census is conducted, so we need the Administration to cooperate with our requests so we can make informed decisions on behalf of the American people."
According to the House oversight committee's press release, Ross "acknowledged that the Administration had not sought input from Congress about this request in advance of this call because of concerns about leaks to the press."
Asked by NPR why no Census Bureau officials participated in the call, Cook responded in an email that Dillingham now plans to speak with members of Congress "as soon as possible," noting: "The Secretary of Commerce is statutorily delegated responsibility to conduct the decennial census and took the role of calling key congressional leaders to continue the consultation process."
The bureau's changes for the 2020 census were supported by Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, one of the main groups advocating for participation in the count.
"If it's not safe to have census takers visiting people's homes by June, then Congress has an obligation to consider other options to protect census workers and the communities they serve, and to ensure an equitable count," Gupta said in a statement. "We cannot afford to compromise the health of our communities or the fairness and accuracy of the census."
In a joint statement released on Tuesday, four former directors of the Census Bureau said they "urge Congress to act in concert" with the bureau's decision to extend field operations until the end of October, noting the move reflects "careful analysis by the technical, scientific and operational staff."
"The best way to support the Census Bureau and our democracy in these difficult times," said Vincent Barabba, Kenneth Prewitt, Robert Groves and John Thompson, "is to be certain you have responded to the 2020 Census."