2020 Census Memo Cites ‘Unprecedented’ Meddling by Trump Administration

WASHINGTON — A newly disclosed memo referring to “unprecedented” interference by the Trump administration in the 2020 census and circulated among senior Census Bureau officials indicates how aggressively they sought to resist the administration’s efforts to manipulate the count for Republican political gain.

The document was shared by three senior executives including Ron S. Garmin, deputy director and daily director of the agency. Written in September 2020 as the administration was pressing the office to end counting weeks early so that if President Donald J. Trump loses the election in November, he may receive the population estimates used to redistribute the House before leaving office.

The memo outlined a series of cases of political interference that senior census officials planned to raise with Wilbur Ross, then the Commerce Secretary, who oversees the office. Issues included critical technical aspects of the census, including privacy of census respondents, the use of estimates to fill in missing population data, pressure to take shortcuts to produce a population total quickly and political pressure on a disruption program that was seeking to identify and count unauthorized immigrants.

Most of these issues directly affected the population estimates used for redistribution. In particular, the administration was adamant that the bureau — for the first time ever — separately counts the number of undocumented immigrants in each state. Trump had ordered the count in a July 2020 presidential memo, saying he wanted to subtract it from the House census estimates.

Statistics officials’ note retracted particularly forcefully, complaining of “direct involvement” by political appointees with methods experts use to find and count unauthorized non-citizens.

The memo stated that “while the Presidential Memorandum may be a statement of administration policy, the Census Bureau views development of methodology and processes as its responsibility as an independent statistical agency.”

The memo was among hundreds of documents obtained by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law in a lawsuit seeking details of the Trump administration’s plans to calculate House seat allocation. The lawsuit was finalized in October, but none of the documents have been made public yet.

Kenneth Pruitt, a public affairs scholar at Columbia University who ran the Census Bureau from 1998 to 2001, said in an interview that cautious bureaucratic language belies unusual opposition to political interference.

“This was a very, very strong commitment to independence on their part,” he said. “They said, ‘We’re in the process of managing technical things the way we think we should. “

He said that officials’ objections only emphasized the need for legislation to protect the Census Bureau from political interference long before the 2030 census begins. “I am very concerned about that,” he said.

Ross, reached by email, said he did not recall seeing the memo nor discussing its contents with office executives. Census Bureau spokesman Michael C. Cook said he could not immediately say whether Census officials had actually raised issues with Mr. Ross, or if so, what his response would be.

The Trump administration has long been open about its intention to change the division of House seats between states by excluding non-citizens from the population. That would leave an older, whiter population base in states with large immigrant populations, something that was supposed to work in the Republicans’ favour.

Trump’s presidential memo ordering the Census Bureau to compile a list of non-citizens for this purpose prompted a far-reaching plan to search billions of government records for hints of foreigners living here, illegally or not. The office proved unable to produce a census of non-citizens before Mr. Trump left office, and non-citizens were counted in the House seat allocation, just as they have in every census since 1790.

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

Among other disclosures, undated documents show Mr. Ross was recruited to lobby 10 Republican governors whose states were reluctant to turn over driver’s license records and lists of people enrolled in public assistance programs so they could be screened for potential non-citizens.

Mr. Ross said in his email that he had “contacted state officials, Republicans and Democrats, who have been slow or reluctant to share data with us.”

He continued, “The goal was to obtain the largest sources of data that could help us conduct a census as complete and accurate as possible.”

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

But the show showed that the administration had enjoyed more success in obtaining public assistance records. Twenty-nine states and one California jurisdiction have signed agreements to disclose aid recipients under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as Food Stamps.

The documents show that Census Bureau professionals have repeatedly warned that it will be difficult or impossible to compile a list of non-citizens from these records, especially in time to subtract them from the total population used for the House redistricting, which was due on the last day of 2020. .

The list of non-citizens has been a priority for two of the political appointees that Mr Trump has appointed to the top management of the office, Nathaniel T. Cogley and Benjamin Overholt.

Census Bureau experts have been “consistently pessimistic” about their ability to find and remove undocumented residents from the total population used to divide the house, the agency’s chief functional officer, Mr. Garmin, wrote in an email to Mr. Shortly after Mr. Trump ordered the list of non-citizens.

Pressure from political appointees to come up with a number has remained intense, with a September 2020 memo emailed to Mr. Garmin; another senior career official, Enrique Lamas; The Office’s Chief of Staff, Christa D. Jones.

The memo appears to have been a draft of the talking points about political interference that officials wanted to raise with Mr. Ross before handing the redistribution numbers to Mr. Trump. She began with the observation that the Department of Commerce was “demonstrating an unusually high degree of involvement in technical matters” involving the counting of the total population, a pattern of intervention that she described as “unprecedented relative to previous censuses.”

The note described political participation in critical aspects of the census, point by point.

One major operation dealt with the Bureau’s use of computer formulas to make informed guesses about who and how many people live in households that failed to complete census forms—calculations directly related to the total used to divide the House and draw new political maps. Another focused on a controversial new method known as differential privacy that the bureau sought to use to protect the identities of the people it accounted for.

Political appointees have also taken an interest in how the Bureau produces the final population figures needed for nationwide political mapping, as well as estimates of the number of voting-age citizens. Mr. Trump has said he wants to give these estimates to states as a basis for political mapping – another tactic that is almost certain to boost Republican political representation. The memo also said political officials had pushed to reduce the steps used to process and double-check population data so that distribution numbers reach the White House on time.

The latest complaint, about interference with the methodology used to count illegal immigrants, came to a head last January, when an unnamed whistleblower accused Mr. Dillingham, Trump’s appointee to head the bureau, of bowing to political pressure to produce a count. From non-citizens that experts said could not be grouped. Mr. Dillingham, who denied the charge, later resigned.

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