WASHINGTON – A newly released memorandum quoting the Trump administration’s “unprecedented” interference in the 2020 census and circulating among top Census Bureau officials suggests how hard they have tried to hinder the administration’s efforts to manipulate the census for Republican political gains.
The document was shared between three executives, including Ron S. Jarmin, Deputy Director and day-to-day director of the agency. It was September 2020, when the administration urged the presidency to end the number of weeks prematurely, so that if President Donald J. Trump loses the November election, he could receive population estimates before resigning, which is used to redistribute the House of Representatives.
The memorandum set out a number of cases of political interference that senior census officials planned to bring to the attention of Wilbur Ross, who was then secretary of the Department of Commerce, which oversees the office. Problems included key technical aspects of the census, including the privacy of census respondents, the use of estimates to fill in missing population data, pressure for shortcuts to quickly count populations, and political pressure on an emergency program to identify and count illegal immigrants.
Most of these issues have directly affected population estimates used for redistribution. In particular, the administration insisted that – for the first time ever – the office would independently count the number of undocumented immigrants in each state. Trump ordered a census in the July 2020 presidential memorandum, saying he wanted to deduct it from estimates of the population redistribution in the House of Representatives.
The memorandum of census officials postponed particularly strongly and complained about the “direct involvement” of politicians appointed in the methods used by experts to find and count unauthorized stateless persons.
“While the presidential memorandum may be a statement of administrative policy,” the memorandum said, “the census office considers the development of methodology and processes to be its responsibility as an independent statistical office.”
The memorandum was among hundreds of documents that the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s law school had obtained in a lawsuit over details of the Trump administration’s plans to calculate seats in the House. The lawsuit was closed in October, but none of the documents have yet been released.
Redistribution at a glance
Every 10 years, every state in the United States is required to redraw the boundaries of its congressional and state legislative districts in a process known as redistricting.
Kenneth Prewitt, a public affairs expert at Columbia University who led the Census Bureau from 1998 to 2001, said in a conversation that prudent bureaucratic language runs counter to extreme opposition to political interference.
“It was a very, very strong commitment to independence on their part,” he said. “They said, ‘We’ll do the technical things we think we should.”
Officials’ objections, he said, only underscored the need for legislation to protect the census from political interference before the 2030 census began. “I’m very concerned about that,” he said.
Mr Ross, who was reached by e-mail, said he did not remember seeing the memorandum or discussing its contents with the office’s executives. Census Bureau spokesman Michael C. Cook said he could not say immediately if census officials had really raised problems with Mr Ross or if so, what was his answer.
The Trump administration has long spoken openly about its intention to change the formula for the distribution of seats in the House among the states by excluding non-citizens from the population. This would leave an older and whiter population base in countries with large immigrant populations, which was supposed to work for Republicans.
Mr Trump’s presidential memorandum ordering the Census Bureau to draw up a list of stateless persons to this end has prompted a far-reaching plan to search billions of government records and find indications that foreigners are living here, whether illegally or not. It turned out that the office was unable to present the number of non-citizens before Mr. Trump’s departure, and those who were not citizens were included in the allocation of seats in the House, as in every census since 1790.
But as the documents show, it was not due to a lack of effort on the part of the Ministry of Commerce and its then leader.
Among other things, the publication of undated documents shows that Mr Ross was recruited to lobby 10 Republican governors, whose states were reluctant to pass on driving license records and lists of people enrolled in public aid programs so that they could be checked for potential citizens.
Mr Ross said in an e-mail that he “called government 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 the most complete and accurate census possible.”
Reports at the time indicated that many states had resisted requests for information, and one presentation in June 2020 showed that only three states – Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota – had agreed to pass on driving license records.
Understand how redistribution works in the US
What is redistribution? It is a redrawing of the boundaries of congressional and state legislative districts. This happens every 10 years, after the census, to reflect changes in the population.
However, the presentation showed that the administration was much more successful in obtaining public aid records. Twenty-nine states and one California jurisdiction have signed agreements to disclose recipients under a supplementary nutritional assistance program, commonly known as food stamps.
The documents show that census professionals have repeatedly warned that it would be difficult or impossible to compile a list of stateless persons from such records, especially in time to be deducted from the total populations used to redistribute the House due. on the last day of 2020.
The list of non-citizens was the priority of two political nominees whom Mr. Trump placed in the top management of the office, Nathaniel T. Cogley and Benjamin Overholt.
Census Bureau experts were “consistently pessimistic” about their ability to find and remove unregistered residents from the total population used to divide the House, the agency’s top career official, Mr Jarmin, wrote in an email to Mr Cogley. Census Bureau, Steven Dillingham, shortly after Mr Trump ordered a list of non-citizens.
Pressure from political nominees to come up with the number remained intense as the September 2020 memorandum was e-mailed to Mr Jarmin; another top career official, Enrique Lamas; and Chief of Staff Christ D. Jones explained.
The memorandum appears to have been a draft of the political interference discussions that leaders wished to have with Mr Ross before the redistribution data were to be delivered to Mr Trump. It began with the observation that the Department of Commerce “demonstrates an unusually high degree of commitment to technical matters” involving the calculation of total stocks, a pattern of intervention that he called “unprecedented given previous censuses.”
The point-by-point communication described political engagement in key aspects of the census.
One key process was how the office used computer formulas to be able to estimate who and how many people lived in households that did not fill out census forms – calculations directly related to the total amounts used to divide the House and draw new political maps. Another focused on a controversial new method known as differential privacy, which the office sought to use to protect the identity of the people it counted.
The political nominees were also interested in how the Bureau would produce the final population data needed to draw national political maps, as well as estimates of the number of citizens at the age of voting. Trump said he wanted to provide these estimates to states as a basis for drawing political maps – another tactic that will almost certainly strengthen Republican political representation. The memorandum also states that politicians have pushed for restrictions on the steps used to process and double-check population data so that distribution data can reach the White House in a timely manner.
The latest complaint of interference in the methodology used to count undocumented immigrants culminated last January, when unnamed informants accused Mr Dillingham, Trump’s appointment to head of office, of giving in to political pressure to present a sum. non-citizens, which, according to experts, could not be gathered. Mr Dillingham, who denied the allegations, later resigned.