Census political interference could be blocked by Senate bill With a Democratic Senate and a GOP House, some census advocates are looking past the new Congress for other ways to help protect the 2030 census and other head counts from political interference.

A divided Congress may sideline protecting the census after Trump's interference

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Tomorrow a new Congress will officially be in session, with the Senate led by Democrats and the House led by Republicans - divided government. That could be bad news for those hoping for new laws in this new year that would better protect the next census. So after years of interference by the Trump administration, census advocates are now looking for other ways to make sure the 2030 count is accurate. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang reports.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: If it sounds early to be talking about the 2030 census, you're not alone.

ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON: Well, to be honest with you, I really don't think anybody in the Congress is even thinking about the years of preparation it takes.

WANG: But Democratic Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton in Washington, D.C., says she knows it takes more than 10 years for the Census Bureau to prepare to count every person living in the country. Those numbers are used to determine how many congressional seats and Electoral College votes each state gets, redraw voting districts and guide more than a trillion dollars every year in federal money to communities. That's why Norton says she introduced a bill in 2022 that would have banned the bureau from adding a census question about U.S. citizenship status that Trump officials wanted and is likely to discourage participation among Latinos and Asian Americans.

HOLMES NORTON: All you're going to do is drive down the number of people we need to know. Now, we need to know the number of people there are in the United States.

WANG: But no census bills became law when Democrats controlled both houses of Congress and the White House. Still, in the new divided Congress, Democratic Senator Brian Schatz of Hawaii says he's planning to reintroduce a bill that would make it harder to try to jam in a citizenship question and would limit the number of political appointees at the Census Bureau. Schatz says with Trump becoming a less powerful force among Republican lawmakers...

BRIAN SCHATZ: People can go back to their normal position, which is, yeah, we ought to count everybody. That's what the Constitution requires. And there's no reason to turn this of all things into a partisan football.

WANG: The way Schatz sees it, Congress actually has three political parties.

SCHATZ: Democrats, Republicans and appropriators.

WANG: Which is why Schatz says he's confident about bipartisan support for the money needed to prepare for the census. But for some census advocates, time is running out.

MARC MORIAL: We have to do things right now, pretty immediately, in the next year to 18 months to solidify the executive changes that are needed while President Biden is in his first term of office.

WANG: Marc Morial, who leads the National Urban League, is calling for the Biden administration's support on more local census offices in 2030 and on the next census counting incarcerated people in their home communities instead of where they're imprisoned. But even if those changes are made by the end of Biden's first term, a lot more can happen in the second half of this decade.

MEETA ANAAD: We've got two presidential elections before the next decennial census. So the room is there for people to interfere.

WANG: For now, Meeta Anand of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights is keeping tabs of a policy review that was stalled by Trump officials. That review may end up allowing the 2030 census forms include a new check box for Middle Eastern or North African under a race ethnicity question and gather more accurate data about Latinos. Still, Thomas Saenz, who heads the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, says there's more work to do after the Census Bureau found that in 2020, the net undercount rate for Latinos more than tripled compared to a decade ago.

THOMAS SAENZ: I don't know why this is not viewed as an alarm.

WANG: Saenz says the Census Bureau needs more funding to boost its outreach to the country's second largest racial or ethnic group if it wants to undo any lasting damage to its reputation from Trump's meddling with the census and anti-immigrant rhetoric.

SAENZ: We can't wait until the eve of the 2030 census. That rehabilitation has to happen now.

WANG: Now in this planning phase for the next headcount, before it becomes harder closer to 2030, to avoid repeating the mess that was the census of 2020. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News, Washington.


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