Amid New Challenges, Census Deadline Extension Necessary to Give Red States a Fair Count

FILE - This March 23, 2018 file photo shows an envelope containing a 2018 census letter mailed to a resident in Providence, R.I., as part of the nation's only test run of the 2020 Census. A Trump administration plan to include a citizenship question on the 2020 Census has prompted legal challenges from many Democratic-led states. But not a single Republican attorney general has sued _ not even from states with large immigrant populations. (AP Photo/Michelle R. Smith)

After a hectic year consumed by the pandemic and a tumultuous presidential election, it’s been easy to lose sight of some other pressing priorities. However, our elected officials must remain focused on the many challenges we will be contending with in the months and years ahead.

In order to properly do that, we will need to ensure a successful conclusion to one of the other ongoing sagas of 2020: the United States Census. As outlined in the Constitution, it is the once-a-decade process by which our government accounts for all Americans, and which informs a large number of the decisions the government will make in the decade to come.

This crucial Constitutional process was cut short this fall by a court order allowing for an early conclusion to the response collection phase of the Census. In addition to cutting the counting process short, this order only left Census officials with about two and a half months to validate and report the responses they have collected, whereas Census workers normally have about five months to go through that process.

While the response collection is now concluded, there is still time for lawmakers to step in and push back the end-of-year deadline for reporting results, and it would be the right course of action for them to take. Because of the condensed response collection timeline, Census workers had to use Nonresponse Followup to make up for any missing information due to a household not reporting their responses to this year’s Census. Ultimately, this made up almost an entire third of the responses collected, and officials will need to be given more time if we are to be sure the results gathered so far are truly accurate.

While Nonresponse Followup normally entails actual visits to speak with those who have not yet responded to the Census, the COVID-19 pandemic presented completely new challenges for doing that effectively, and officials had to lean more heavily on other sources of information, like potentially out-of-date government and administrative records.

The implications of an inaccurate Census tally would be significant. The final results of the Census determine how lawmakers and federal officials allocate roughly $1.5 trillion in federal funding. That means that even a slight undercount could cost a state hundreds of millions every year, which means that hard-earned tax dollars across the nation will be redirected toward higher-density areas with more accurate Census results than the struggling rural communities who need them but were undercounted in this year’s Census due to being harder to reach. The red state’s with the lowest response rates are Arkansas, Alaska, Louisiana,  Mississippi, Montana and South Carolina.

The problems don’t end there, however. If an area is undercounted in the Census, then it will also be underrepresented in Washington, because the Census results are used to redistrict each state and divide the 435 seats in the House of Representatives. Should that be the case, then there will be fewer voices advocating for the needs of those communities and they will be left behind.

Thankfully, conservative Senate leaders have recognized this and are acting to extend the Census reporting deadline. Senator Dan Sullivan (R-AK) introduced the 2020 Census Deadline Extensions Act to allow Census workers more time to fully verify the responses they have collected, and he’s been joined by Democrat Jon Tester (D-MT) and several Republican colleagues like Senators Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), David Perdue (R-GA) and Steve Daines (R-MT). Soon, they will hopefully be joined by more Republican Senate leaders like Marco Rubio (R-FL), Rick Scott (R-FL), Ted Cruz (R-TX), and John Cornyn (R-TX), who see just how much their states stand to lose if the Census reporting deadline is not pushed back.

Our government works best when it fairly represents all Americans, but that can only be done with an accurate Census. This is an integral Constitutional process that we only get one chance at every ten years, and with all the challenges that have made things more difficult this year, extending the reporting deadline is the responsible, common-sense path to pursue.