Out for the Count? Terri Ann Lowenthal on the Coronavirus Threat to the Census

Census form

The US Census Bureau announced that it was postponing its field operations until June 1 and extending its deadline to October 31. (AP Photo / Michelle R. Smith)

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This month the US Census Bureau announced that it was postponing its field operations until June 1 and extending its deadline to count every American to October 31. The pandemic has made it impossible for Census workers to safely knock on the doors of the millions of households who have failed to fill out the Census online (or by phone), live on Indian reservations, or whose homes lie in remote areas with low broadband coverage or inconsistent postal addresses.

“The timing of the health crisis could not have been worse,” leading Census expert Terri Ann Lowenthal told me, “I was already worried that the 2020 Census could be sailing into a perfect storm with headwinds largely out of the Census Bureau’s control. And then the Census got hit by a tsunami.”

When I first met Lowenthal in March of 2018, I was reporting for The Intercept on the Trump administration’s lackluster preparations for the 2020 Census. Lowenthal, whose mother is a champion sailor, has advised three previous Censuses and continues to consult the Bureau and the Census oversight committees. At the time, Lowenthal warned that a confluence of factors was already threatening the Census: underfunding, untested digital systems, unpreparedness in the neediest and historically undercounted communities, and apparent attempts by the administration to politicize the count. Just as I had finished reporting, the Commerce Department announced its intention to include a question about citizenship status on the survey.

The news dropped like a bomb. It was a harbinger of the chaos, confusion, and fear that would accompany a nationwide count carried out by an administration more intent on terrorizing immigrants than on accurately enumerating the nation’s population.

In her cautious way, Lowenthal told me that Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross’s justification for including a citizenship question (that it was necessary to enforce, of all things, minority voting rights!) did “nothing to counter suspicions that he was influenced by partisan factors or political goals unrelated to the Census Bureau’s constitutional mission.” In decades of bipartisan work, Lowenthal has mastered a delicate, plausibly apolitical idiom in which to criticize those attempting to sabotage her work. Our conversations often involve me saying things like, “So, he lied,” and her responding, “You can say that. I’m not saying that.”

A year later, it became clear that Ross had indeed colluded with Steve Bannon and voter suppression guru Kris Kobach to manufacture a rationale for adding the citizenship question in order to undermine the count in diverse and Democratic regions of the country. The Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling, preventing the citizenship question from going forward.

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