Harris County Joins Federal Lawsuit Trying to Extend Time for U.S. Census Count

Originally distributed by The Texas Tribune

Citing the high stakes of a botched census, Harris County and two of its Democratic county commissioners have signed on to a federal lawsuit trying to block the Trump administration’s efforts to end counting for the 2020 census a month earlier than planned.

The constitutionally required count of everyone living in the country had been extended due to the coronavirus pandemic and was to run through Oct. 31. But the Census Bureau announced earlier this month it will end the count sooner, moving up the deadline for responding to Sept. 30.

A federal lawsuit filed Monday in California alleges that the shortened schedule is unconstitutional because it will not produce a fair and accurate count and that the Census Bureau’s move violates federal administrative law because the decision was “arbitrary and capricious.”

The lawsuit is led by the National Urban League and the League of Women Voters. Harris County, which is the state’s largest, joined in along with other local entities including the city of Los Angeles and King County in Washington. Harris County Commissioners Rodney Ellis and Adrian Garcia are signed on as individual plaintiffs.

“Undercounted cities, counties, and municipalities will lose representation in Congress and tens of millions of dollars in funding,” the lawsuit reads. “And communities of color will lose core political power and vital services. In contrast to these dire stakes, the immediate solution to this problem is simple: set aside and enjoin implementation of the impossibly-shortened Rush Plan, which is based on an unexplained change of position, and allow the Census Bureau to implement the plan that it had designed to fulfill its constitutional duties during the pandemic.”

Months into the count, not even 3 out of every 5 households in Texas have responded to the census. The state’s 59% response rate puts it several points below the national average. In Harris County, only 58.7% of households have responded to the census so far.

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With Texas Republican leaders refusing to put any funding toward the count, Harris County approved a $4 million budget for outreach efforts to get its residents to respond to the census, which will determine their economic and political future for the next 10 years. The census serves as the funding base for everything from early childhood programs to highway planning and construction, and the count is used to distribute power and political representation in Congress and locally.

The October cutoff had offered organizers crucial overtime for the count after the coronavirus pandemic derailed canvassing and outreach efforts that in some regions of the state, like in Harris County, had been in the works for years.

But those efforts have been further disrupted by what Harris County and other plaintiffs in the lawsuit dubbed as the “rush plan.” Mailers ordered before the change had to be redone, with county workers forced to purchase stickers to cover the old deadline on those materials.

In announcing the new deadline, Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham said the bureau planned to hire more employees “to accelerate the completion of data collection” and avoid a delay in reporting counts for seats in Congress and the distribution of redistricting data.

“The Census Bureau’s new plan reflects our continued commitment to conduct a complete count, provide accurate apportionment data, and protect the health and safety of the public and our workforce,” Dillingham said in a statement.

But the earlier deadline has heightened the possibility that Texas will be undercounted and that low-income and Hispanic Texans in particular — who were already at the highest risk of being missed — will go uncounted at a time when the coronavirus pandemic is ravaging their communities.

In Harris County, where about 43% of residents are Hispanic and 20% are Black, census workers carrying out the bureau’s door-to-door campaign to follow up with households that have not yet filled out the census must still visit two out of every five households. The Census Bureau announced its schedule change just as it began to follow up with those households, essentially shortening the time census workers would have to reach communities at the highest risk of being missed.

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Statewide, response rates have been lower in census tracts with larger shares of Hispanic residents or those with more people living in poverty, according to an analysis by the state demographer’s office.

Disclosure: The League of Women Voters has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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Alexa Ura is an associate editor and reporter at The Texas Tribune. As the Tribune’s demographics reporter, she covers the intersection between politics and race with an emphasis on the state’s surging Hispanic population. She also covers voting rights issues for the Tribune, where she started as a reporting fellow in 2013. She’s a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin.