Census Memo Cites ‘Unprecedented’ Trump Administration Meddling

WASHINGTON — A newly released memorandum referring to “unprecedented” interference by the Trump administration in the 2020 census and distributed to top Census Bureau officials shows how strongly they tried to resist attempts by the administration to take the census for Republican political gain.

The document was shared by three senior executives, including Ron S. Jarmin, a deputy director and the bureau’s daily chief. It was written in September 2020 when the government urged the agency to end the census weeks early so that if President Donald J. Trump lost the November election, he could receive population estimates used to vote the House of Representatives. redistribute before he leaves office.

The memo outlined a series of cases of political interference that senior census officials planned to raise with Wilbur Ross, who was then the secretary of the Department of Commerce, which oversees the agency. The issues involved critical technical aspects of the census, including the privacy of census respondents, the use of estimates to fill in missing population data, pressure to take shortcuts to quickly produce population totals, and political pressure on a crash program that tried to identify and count unauthorized immigrants.

Most of these issues directly affected the population estimates used for the redistribution. In particular, the administration was adamant that the agency would add — for the first time ever — the number of undocumented immigrants in each state separately. Trump had ordered the census in a July 2020 presidential memorandum, saying he wanted to subtract them from the House’s population redistribution estimates.

The census memorandum pushed back particularly vigorously, complaining of “direct involvement” by political appointees with the methods experts used to find and count unauthorized non-citizens.

“While the presidential memorandum may be a statement of government policy,” the memo said, “the Census Bureau considers the development of the methodology and processes its responsibility as an independent statistical agency.”

The memorandum was one of hundreds of documents obtained by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s law school in a lawsuit asking for details about the Trump administration’s plans for calculating seat allocation in the United States. House. The lawsuit was concluded in October, but so far none of the documents had been made public.

Kenneth Prewitt, a public affairs scientist at Columbia University who headed the Census Bureau from 1998 to 2001, said in an interview that the meticulous bureaucratic language belied an extraordinary resistance to political interference.

“This was a very, very strong commitment to independence on their part,” he said. “They said, ‘We’re going to handle the technical stuff the way we think we should.'”

The officials’ objections, he said, only underscored the need for legislation to protect the Census Bureau from political interference well before the 2030 census kicks off. “I’m very concerned about that,” he said.

Reached by email, Mr Ross said he cannot recall seeing the memorandum nor discussing its contents with agency executives. A spokesman for the Census Bureau, Michael C. Cook, said he could not immediately say whether the census officials actually raised the issues with Mr Ross and, if so, what his response was.

The Trump administration has long been open about its intention to change the formula for dividing House seats among states by excluding non-citizens from the population numbers. That would leave an older and whiter population base in states with large immigrant populations, something believed to work in the Republicans’ favor.

Trump’s presidential memorandum ordering the Census Bureau to compile a list of non-citizens for that purpose sparked a far-reaching plan to search billions of government records for hints of foreigners living here illegally or not. The agency was unable to produce the census of noncitizens before Mr. Trump left office, and noncitizens were counted in the allocation of seats in the House, just as they had done in every census since 1790.

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

Among other revelations, undated documents show that Mr. Ross was brought in to lobby 10 Republican governors whose states were reluctant to transfer driver’s licenses and lists of people participating in public aid programs so they could be screened for potential non-citizens.

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

He continued, “The goal was to collect as many data sources as possible that could help us have the most complete and accurate census possible.”

News reports at the time suggested that many states resisted requests to provide information, and a slideshow in June 2020 showed that only three states — Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota — had agreed to transfer driver license data.

But the presentation showed that the administration had been much more successful in obtaining public assistance records. Twenty-nine states and one California jurisdiction had signed agreements to disclose aid recipients under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps.

The documents show that Census Bureau professionals repeatedly warned that it would be difficult or impossible to compile a list of non-citizens from such registries, especially to subtract them in time from the population totals used to redistribute the House, which will be the day of the last day of 2020.

The list of non-citizens was a priority for two political appointees Mr. Trump had placed in the bureau’s senior management, Nathaniel T. Cogley and Benjamin Overholt.

Census Bureau experts were “consistently pessimistic” about their ability to find and remove undocumented residents from the population totals used in the division of the House, the bureau’s top official, Mr. Jarmin, wrote in an email. mail to Mr. Cogley and the head of the Census Bureau, Steven Dillingham, shortly after Mr. Trump ordered the list of non-citizens.

Pressure from the political appointees to come up with some remained intense, as the September 2020 memorandum emailed to Mr Jarmin; another top official, Enrique Lamas; and the bureau chief of staff, Christa D. Jones, made it clear.

The memo appears to be a draft of political interference topics that officials wanted to discuss with Mr. Ross before the redistribution figures were delivered to Mr. Trump. It started with an observation that the Department of Commerce “displayed an unusually high level of involvement in technical matters” regarding the calculation of population totals, a pattern of interference it called “unprecedented compared to previous censuses”.

Point by point, the memo described political involvement in crucial aspects of the census.

An important process involved the agency’s use of computer formulas to make educated guesses about who and how many people lived in households that had not completed census forms — calculations directly related to the totals used to divide the House and new political maps to draw. Another focused on a controversial new method known as differential privacy that the agency attempted to use to shield the identities of the people it counted.

Political appointees had also expressed an interest in how the agency would produce the final population figures needed to create nationwide political maps, as well as estimates of the number of citizens eligible to vote. Mr. Trump had said he wanted to give those estimates to states as a basis for drawing political maps — another tactic that would almost certainly boost Republican political representation. The memo also said political officials had urged reducing the steps used to process and double-check population data so that distribution figures could reach the White House on time.

The latest complaint, about interference in the method used to count undocumented immigrants, came to a head last January when unnamed whistleblowers accused Mr. Dillingham, Mr. Trump’s appointee to head the agency, of to give to political pressure to produce a census of non-citizens that experts said could not be collected. mr. Dillingham, who denied the charges, later resigned.

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