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From paperless voting machines to a printer-less census, this week, NPR learned how a government contract worth tens of millions of dollars resulted in a company headed towards bankruptcy. That contract was for printing forms for the upcoming 2020 census. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang reports on what this means for the national headcount.
HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Right now, I'm just a few blocks away from NPR's headquarters in Washington D.C., outside a red brick and terra-cotta building. This is the home of the U.S. Government Publishing Office. For decades, this is where government documents were printed. Nowadays, a lot of that work is contracted out to private companies. And the single largest contract the GPO has awarded was for the 2020 census forms.
BILL TURRI: Oh, it's a huge contract - huge.
WANG: Bill Turri would know. He used to lead what used to be called the Government Printing Office before the 2010 census. For the 2020 headcount, the GPO selected Cenveo for a $61 million contract. The company was supposed to print the forms, letters and postcards the government will send to try to get every person living in the U.S. counted, just as the Constitution requires every 10 years.
But less than four months after Cenveo won that contract, the company filed for bankruptcy. Then, last week...
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AL FONTENOT: The United States concluded that because of the constitutional mandate to conduct the 2020 census, it was in the public interest to terminate Cenveo's contract.
WANG: Now as the director of the 2020 headcount, Al Fontenot speaking at the Census Bureau, which has agreed to pay Cenveo more than $5 million as part of the bankruptcy settlement.
As NPR has reported, GPO officials didn't check if Cenveo had enough money to complete the job. They also allowed the company to lower its bid by almost $9 million after other bids had been unsealed. Cenveo has not responded to NPR's request for comment. In a written statement, a GPO spokesperson says the agency is working on an expedited timeline to find a new printer. The head of the 2020 census, Al Fontenot, says they hope to do so...
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FONTENOT: By November, which will ensure there is no negative impact on the 2020 printing - mailing operation or the overall 2020 census schedule.
WANG: But former GPO head Bill Turri isn't so optimistic.
TURRI: That's cutting it very close. They would, obviously, normally have somebody lined up to do this kind of work long before now, so they're going to be under a lot of pressure.
WANG: Pressure on the 2020 census is already coming from lawsuits against the new citizenship question and cybersecurity concerns over the first online U.S. census. The Census Bureau, though, is still planning to rely on paper to complete the headcount. It just needs to find a new printer first. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News, Washington.
[POST-BROADCAST CLARIFICATION: In the audio, as in a previous version of the Web story, we describe the 2020 census as the first online U.S. census. It would have been more accurate to say it will be the first census in which all households will have the opportunity to reply online. In 2000, there was an online option, but it was only for the short form and only in English. The Census Bureau says 63,053 households were counted using only the online option.]
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