NAACP sues Commerce amid concerns over census prep, funding

Shutterstock editorial image (by Gil C): State Census Bureau homepage. 

The NAACP is suing the Commerce Department, alleging the agency illegally withheld internal documents regarding the Census Bureau's preparation for the 2020 count.

The Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, seeking information the NAACP requested in June, is rooted in concerns that the 2020 Census is on track for an inaccurate count.

Specifically, the NAACP is seeking records pertaining to the bureau's plans to mitigate the risks identified by the Government Accountability Office, which placed the Census on its high-risk list in February after the bureau announced it would cancel its 2017 field tests.

The lawsuit also demands information about the impact of President Donald Trump's hiring freeze on Census staffing, budgetary concerns and the June resignation of its director, a position that Trump still hasn't filled.

The 2020 census will rely on more technology than ever before, but the bureau has cancelled or suspended a series of tests of said technology and programs, including the paring down of the critical 2018 dress rehearsal. The NAACP is worried about the bureau's ability to accurately count all Americans.

Khyla Craine, assistant general counsel at the NAACP, told FCW she's concerned that the cuts, combined with the hiring freeze and proposed budget constraints, could potentially jeopardize the bureau's ability to deploy enumerators and conduct outreach in historically hard-to-reach communities. 

"The NAACP's concerns are that many communities of color lack access to the internet, so it'll be difficult to fill out the census," she said. "If you already have a historic undercounting issue using paper ... we need to know how you're going to reach out to these communities."

Terri Ann Lowenthal, who has provided census oversight as a congressional aide, presidential transition team member and private consultant on decennials dating back to the 1990 count, told FCW that while there have been pre- and post-census lawsuits in the past, "I cannot think of a pre-census lawsuit whose goal was to gain access to planning information that could shed light on how successful the upcoming census will be."

Commerce took the unusual step of commenting on the ongoing lawsuit.

"The 2020 Census will add the availability of response by internet as a convenience for those who wish to use it. It is not a substitute for mail, telephone or door-to-door enumerating," said Secretary Wilbur Ross in an emailed statement, characterizing the lawsuit as "largely without merit."

"In order to increase the public's awareness of the census and its importance, an extensive media campaign will be conducted in both major publications and community media," Ross said. "Census will also be working with community groups to provide accurate information to local communities, encourage greater response rates by community group members and to recruit enumerators who are familiar with the local area."

In August 2016, the bureau awarded a $415 million contract to the marketing firm Young and Rubicam to design a communications program to will promote self-response to limit in-person follow-ups by enumerators.

Given the cost overruns and operational changes since the Census's last operational plan was released in October 2015, Ross has convened a task force to produce an updated full lifecycle cost estimate.

"The Census Bureau is committed to assuring a full, fair, and accurate count, and I pledge to oversee the bureau's efforts to discharge that commitment," Ross said.

About the Author

Chase Gunter is a former FCW staff writer.


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