LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
We have news of an unusual court ruling that is complicating the 2020 U.S. Census. The Trump administration has been winding down the legally mandated national headcount in some parts of the country. But a federal judge in California has issued an emergency ruling ordering the Census Bureau to press on, at least for now. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang covers all things census-related for us. And he joins us now. Hi.
HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Good morning, Lulu.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: What does the court order say about what the Census Bureau has to do?
WANG: Yeah. This is a temporary restraining order by U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh in Northern California. And it basically forces the Census Bureau to hit pause nationwide on any winding down of door knocking, other on-the-ground work to get a count of every person living in the U.S. until there's a court hearing on September 17.
This is a hearing for a lawsuit led by the National Urban League, which is trying to push for more time for the census. And, you know, it's hard to overstate how influential these numbers are for the next 10 years. It's a count that's required by the Constitution, determines each state's share of congressional seats, Electoral College votes, trillions in federal funding for Medicare, Medicaid, other public services. And there has been pressure to cut counting short by a month because the Trump administration wants it done sooner rather than later.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: What does this mean for the census workers who have been going out door to door across the country?
WANG: A spokesperson for the bureau tells me they're still figuring that out. Households can still fill out an online form at my2020census.gov. But this court order is likely to add to the mess that is the 2020 census right now. The main issue here is that there's been a mysterious, last-minute move by the Trump administration - that originally, because of the pandemic, publicly said back in April that the bureau should get more time to count, even asked Congress to push back legal deadlines for results into next year.
But then I broke a story in late July that it apparently changed its mind and directed the bureau to finish counting soon so that President Trump, even if he doesn't win reelection, can receive the first set of results this year. That's what's required by current federal law. But top bureau officials have said publicly, since May, that they can no longer deliver a complete and accurate count by the end of December.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, that is extremely problematic. You've mentioned how important this is. What could go wrong if the Census Bureau does not have enough time for this count?
WANG: There's a leaked document from inside the bureau that warns of serious errors in the counts because the bureau might find mistakes in the data after they stop counting. And they won't have time to fix them. And another part of the issue here is about 4 in 10 households right now have not filled out a census form on their own. And federal law says census information can't be used against them, but the government - by the government or in court. But the bureau's door knockers need time to convince them to trust the government. And the bottom line here is that there is an existing problem with the census that could be made worse - that decade after decade, the census has undercounted Black, Latino, Asian, Pacific Islander and American Indian populations while overcounting white people.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Four in 10 - that's extraordinary. So where does the census go from here?
WANG: I'm watching to see what happens on this court hearing on September 17. There's also another lawsuit in Maryland trying to extend a census schedule - also watching to see what might happen in Congress, part of the coronavirus relief negotiations. Congress could play a key role here if they change the legal deadlines for reporting census results.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: That was NPR's Hansi Lo Wang, who's covering the 2020 census for us. Thank you very much.
WANG: You're welcome, Lulu.
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