2020 Census memo cites ‘unprecedented’ interference by Trump administration

WASHINGTON — A recently leaked memorandum citing the Trump administration’s “unprecedented” interference in the 2020 census and circulated among senior Census Bureau officials indicates how they have sought to resist administration efforts to manipulating the tally for Republican political purposes.

The document was shared among three senior executives, including Ron S. Jarmin, deputy director and day-to-day head of the agency. It was written in September 2020 as the administration pressed the office to end the count weeks early so that if President Donald J. Trump lost the election in November, he could receive the population estimates used to redistribute the House of Representatives before leaving office.

The memo laid out a series of examples of political interference that senior census officials planned to raise with Wilbur Ross, then secretary of the Commerce Department, who oversees the bureau. The issues centered on crucial technical aspects of the count, including the confidentiality of census respondents, the use of estimates to fill in missing demographic data, pressure to take shortcuts to quickly produce population totals, and political pressure on a emergency 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 insisted that — for the first time ever — the bureau separately tally 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 the population estimates of the House redistribution.

The census officials’ memorandum pushed back with particular vigor, complaining about the “direct engagement” of political appointees with the methods experts used to find and count unauthorized non-citizens.

“Although the presidential memorandum may be a statement of administration policy,” the memo states, “the Census Bureau views the development of methodology and processes as its responsibility as an independent statistical agency.”

The memorandum was among hundreds of documents the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School has obtained in a lawsuit seeking details of the Trump administration’s plans to calculate allocation of seats in the House. The lawsuit was concluded in October, but none of the documents had been made public until now.

Kenneth Prewitt, a Columbia University public affairs specialist who led the Census Bureau from 1998 to 2001, said in an interview that the cautious bureaucratic language belies an extraordinary pushback against political interference.

“It was a very, very strong commitment to independence on their part,” he said. “They said, ‘We’re going to handle the technical issues the way we think we should. “”

Officials’ objections, he said, only underscore the need for legislation to protect the Census Bureau from political interference long before the 2030 census begins. “, did he declare.

Reached by email, Mr. Ross said he did not recall seeing the memorandum or discussing its contents with office leaders. A Census Bureau spokesman, Michael C. Cook, said he could not immediately say whether census officials had actually raised the issues with Mr. Ross or, if so, what his response had been. .

The Trump administration had long been open about plans to change the formula for allocating House seats among states by excluding noncitizens from the population count. This would leave an older, whiter population base in states with large immigrant populations, which was presumed to work to Republican advantage.

Mr. Trump’s presidential memorandum directing the Census Bureau to compile a list of non-citizens for this purpose sparked a sweeping plan to sift through billions of government records for clues of aliens living here, illegally or not. The bureau was unable to produce the count of non-citizens before Mr. Trump left office, and non-citizens were counted in the allocation of House seats, as they had been in all censuses since 1790.

But as the documents show, it was not for lack of effort on the part of the Commerce Department and its head at the time.

Among other revelations, undated documents show 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 to that they can be selected for potential non-citizens.

Mr Ross said in his 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 as many data sources as possible that could help us have as complete and accurate a census as possible.”

News reports at the time suggested that many states were resisting requests for information, and a slide presentation in June 2020 showed that only three states – Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota – had agreed to hand over the records. driver’s license.

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 aid recipients under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps.

The documents show that Census Bureau career professionals repeatedly warned that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to compile a list of non-citizens from these records, especially in time to subtract them from the totals of population used to redistribute the House, which were due on the last day of 2020.

The list of noncitizens was a priority for two politicians named by Mr. Trump to the office’s senior leadership, Nathaniel T. Cogley and Benjamin Overholt.

Census Bureau experts had been “consistently pessimistic” about their ability to find and remove undocumented residents from the population totals used to break down the house, wrote the agency’s top career official, Mr. Jarmin, in an email to Mr. Cogley and Census Bureau Chief Steven Dillingham shortly after Mr. Trump ordered the list of noncitizens.

Pressure from political appointees to come up with a figure has remained intense, such as the September 2020 memorandum emailed to Mr. Jarmin; another senior career civil servant, Enrique Lamas; and the office’s chief of staff, Christa D. Jones, was clear.

The memo appears to have been a draft of talking points about political interference that officials wanted to raise with Mr. Ross before the redistribution figures were given to Mr. Trump. It began with an observation that the Commerce Department “exhibits an unusually high degree of engagement in technical matters” involving the calculation of population totals, a pattern of interference it called ” unprecedented compared to previous censuses”.

Point by point, the note described the political involvement in crucial aspects of the census.

A key process involved the bureau’s use of computer formulas to make educated guesses about who and how many people lived in households that had not completed census forms – calculations directly tied to the totals used to apportion the House and draw new political maps. Another centered on a controversial new method known as differential privacy that the office sought to use to protect the identities of people it counted.

Political appointees had also been interested in how the office would produce the final population figures needed to draw nationwide political maps, as well as estimates of the number of citizens of voting age. Mr. Trump had said he wanted to give those estimates to states as a basis for drawing political maps — another tactic that would almost certainly bolster Republican political representation. The memo also says politicians have pushed to reduce the steps used to process and double-check demographic data so that distribution figures can reach the White House in time.

The latest complaint, about interference in the methodology used to count undocumented immigrants, came to a head last January, when anonymous whistleblowers accused Mr. Dillingham, the person Mr. Trump appointed to head the office, of yielding to political pressure to produce a count. of non-citizens who, according to experts, could not be brought together. Mr Dillingham, who denied the charge, later resigned.

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