WASHINGTON – A recently released memorandum citing an “unprecedented” intrusion by the Trump administration into the 2020 census and circulating among top Census Bureau officials indicates how hard they tried to resist the Census Bureau’s efforts. administration to manipulate the count for Republican political gains.
The document was shared between three senior executives, including Ron S. Jarmin, an assistant director and the day-to-day head of the agency. It was written in September 2020, when the administration was pressuring the office to end the count weeks earlier, so that if President Donald J. Trump lost the election in November, it could receive population estimates used to redistribute the House of Representatives. Representatives before leaving office.
The note set out a series of instances of political interference that senior census officials had planned to raise with Wilbur Ross, then Secretary of Commerce, who oversees the office. Issues involved crucial technical aspects of the census, including the privacy of census respondents, the use of estimates to fill in missing population data, pressure to take shortcuts to produce population totals quickly, and political pressure on an accident program that sought to identify and count unauthorized immigrants.
Most of these problems directly affected the population estimates used for redistribution. In particular, the administration showed that, for the first time, the office counts separately the number of undocumented immigrants in each state. Mr. Trump had ordered the count in a July 2020 presidential memorandum, saying he wanted to subtract them from estimates of redistribution in the House population.
The census officials’ memorandum was backtracked with particular force, complaining about the “direct commitment” of designated politicians to the methods used by experts to find and count unauthorized noncitizens.
“While the Presidential Memorandum may be a statement of government policy,” the Census Bureau said, “the Census Bureau considers the development of methodology and processes as its responsibility as an independent statistical agency. “.
The memorandum was among hundreds of documents obtained by the Brennan Center for Justice from New York University School of Law in a lawsuit seeking details of the Trump administration’s plans to calculate the allocation of seats. of the House. The lawsuit was filed in October, but so far none of the documents have been released.
Redistricted at a glance
Every 10 years, every U.S. state must redraw the boundaries of its state and congressional legislative districts in a process known as redistricting.
Kenneth Prewitt, a public affairs scholar at Columbia University who headed the Census Bureau from 1998 to 2001, said in an interview that careful bureaucratic language belies an extraordinary rejection of political interference.
“This was a very, very strong commitment to independence on his part,” he said. “They said, ‘We’re going to handle technical issues the way we think we should.’
Officials’ objections, he said, only underscored the need for legislation to protect the Census Bureau from political interference long before the 2030 census begins. “I am very concerned about this,” he said.
Obtained by e-mail, Mr. Ross said he did not recall seeing the memorandum or discussing its contents with office executives. Census Bureau spokesman Michael C. Cook said he could not immediately say whether census officials actually raised issues with Mr. Ross or, if so, what was his response.
The Trump administration has long been open about its intention to change the formula for allocating House seats among states by excluding noncitizens from population counts. This would leave an older, whiter population base in states with large immigrant populations, which was supposed to work for the benefit of Republicans.
The presidential memorandum of Mr. Trump ordering the Census Bureau to compile a list of noncitizens for this purpose sparked a far-reaching plan to search billions of government records for clues to foreigners living here, illegally or not. The office was unable to produce the non-citizen count before Mr. Trump left office, and noncitizens counted on the allocation of House seats, as they had done in every census since 1790.
But, as the documents show, this was not due to lack of effort on the part of the Department of Commerce and its leader at the time.
Among other revelations, undated documents show that Mr. Ross was enlisted to pressure 10 Republican governors whose states had been reluctant to hand over driver’s license records and lists of people enrolled in public assistance programs so that they could be selected for potential noncitizens.
Mr. Ross said in an email that he had “called state officials, both Republicans and Democrats, who were slow or reluctant to share data with us.”
He continued: “The goal was to get the maximum data sources that could help us have a census as complete and accurate as possible.”
News reports at the time suggested that many states resisted requests for information, and a slide show in June 2020 showed that only three states (Iowa, Nebraska, and South Dakota) had agreed. deliver driver’s license records.
Understand how district redistribution works in the United States
What is redistrict? It is the redesign of the boundaries of state legislative districts and Congress. It happens every 10 years, after the census, to reflect population changes.
But the presentation showed that the administration had been much more successful in obtaining public assistance records. Twenty-nine states and one California jurisdiction had signed agreements to disclose recipients of aid under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps.
Documents show that Census Bureau career professionals repeatedly warned that it would be difficult or impossible to compile a list of noncitizens from these records, especially in time to subtract them from the total population used to redistribute the population. Chamber, which were to be paid on the last day of 2020.
The list of non-citizens was a priority for two designated politicians that Mr. Trump had placed Nathaniel T. Cogley and Benjamin Overholt at the top of the office.
Census Bureau experts had been “constantly pessimistic” about their ability to find and remove undocumented residents from the total population used to distribute the House, wrote the agency’s top career official, Mr. Jarmin, in an email to Mr. Cogley and the head of the Census Bureau, Steven Dillingham, shortly after Trump ordered the list of noncitizens.
Pressure from political nominees to reach a number remained strong as the September 2020 memorandum was emailed to Mr. Jarmin; another top career manager, Enrique Lamas; and the chief of staff of the office, Christa D. Jones, made it clear.
The memorandum appears to have been a draft of points of conversation about political interference that officials wanted to raise with Mr. Ross before the redistribution figures were handed over to Mr. Trump. He began with a remark that the Department of Commerce was “demonstrating an unusually high degree of commitment on technical issues” involving the calculation of population totals, a pattern of interference he called “unprecedented in relation to previous censuses.” .
Point by point, the note described political involvement in crucial aspects of the census.
A key process dealt with the use of computer formulas by the office to make educated conjectures about who and how many people lived in households that had not completed census forms: calculations directly related to the totals used to distribute the House and draw new political maps. Another focused on a controversial new method known as differential privacy that the office tried to use to protect the identities of the people it counted on.
Politicians had also been interested in how the office would produce the final population figures needed to draw political maps across the country, as well as estimates of the number of citizens of voting age. Mr. Trump had said he wanted to give these estimates to states as a basis for drawing political maps, another tactic that would almost certainly increase Republican political representation. The note also said that political officials had pushed to reduce the steps used to process and verify population data so that distribution figures could arrive on time at the White House.
The final complaint, about the interference in the methodology used to count undocumented immigrants, reached its culmination last January, when anonymous whistleblowers accused Mr. Dillingham, the designee of Mr. Trump to run the office, to give in to political pressure to produce a count. of non-citizens that experts said could not meet. Mr Dillingham, who denied the accusation, later resigned.
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