Census 2020 Policy Update

September 2, 2020

As the Census Bureau embarks upon the final, crucial phase of data collection with the nationwide launch of Nonresponse Followup (NRFU) visits on August 11, its work has been significantly complicated by political meddling with its operational plan, workload, and procedures for the production of statutorily-required data products. This has further hampered Census Bureau operations that were already disrupted by the pandemic, hurricanes, and wildfires. Recent developments in census policy underscore the paramount importance of ensuring that the mission of counting every person once and in the correct location is not undermined by unconstitutional efforts to diminish fair representation for Latinos, which would undermine the foundation of our representative democracy. Departures from the constitutional mandates for the census and the Census Bureau’s fundamental mission threaten the success and credibility of the 2020 Census.

Presidential Memorandum on Apportionment Basis

 On July 21, 2020, President Donald Trump signed a memorandum that directed the exclusion of undocumented immigrants from the count of the population used for the apportionment of congressional seats. The memorandum indicates that the White House will subtract undocumented resident totals from state population counts before calculating the number of seats to which each state is entitled.  However, it does not change the 2020 Census form or any aspect of the operational plan for collecting and refining data (see discussion of changes in the Census 2020 operational plan in “Timeline for Data Delivery and Impact on Field and Data Review Operations,” below).

This memorandum contradicts constitutional directives to base apportionment on an “actual enumeration” of “the whole number of persons” living in the country at the time of the census. The memorandum harkens back to our nation’s racist history, where Black slaves were originally counted as only three-fifths of a person for apportionment purposes, which is unconstitutional today. In addition, the memorandum seeks to manipulate census data for political gain.

As of this writing, at least six legal challenges have been filed by states, cities, and advocacy organizations. The plaintiffs include the State of New York, 20 other states and other localities; the State of California and several California localities; Common Cause; the City of San Jose; and the New York Immigration Coalition and other partner groups who work with immigrants and underrepresented communities. MALDEF (Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund) is using its involvement in an earlier suit brought by the State of Alabama to exclude undocumented residents from apportionment counts to fight the White House memo. Cases filed by a New York State-led coalition of states, counties, and cities, and by the New York Immigration Coalition are among those proceeding most rapidly, with their panel of presiding judges already having convened a pre-trial conference in mid-August.

Timeline for Data Delivery and Impact on Field and Data Review Operations

In April 2020, after taking stock of pandemic conditions and their severe disruptive effect on the Census Bureau’s operational plans, the Bureau set forth a revised timeline that extended data collection to October 31. The Bureau also proposed a delayed delivery of apportionment and redistricting data to federal and state authorities (for more information on this revised timeline, see our June 30th Census 2020 Policy Update). The Secretary of Commerce asked Congress to extend the statutory deadlines for the production of these data by 120 days, and the House of Representatives accordingly adopted these changes in the HEROES Act, which passed the House on May 15, 2020.

Advocates and policymakers initially anticipated that the U.S. Senate would include provisions that parallel those in the HEROES Act in its COVID-19 relief package, but the Senate has not yet considered such legislation at the committee level or on the floor. In the meantime, the Administration has reversed its stance on its initial request to extend the data delivery deadline. The Administration has now forced the Census Bureau to revise its timeline once again to accommodate delivering apportionment data to the President by December 31. This change would enable the Trump Administration to manipulate 2020 Census data and to send altered counts to policymakers for purposes of apportioning the House of Representatives.

To meet the Administration’s timeline, the Bureau now plans to curtail its field data collection activities and the deadline for self-response to September 30. It will also complete NRFU, during which it interviews households that have not yet self-responded, by September 30. This rushed timeline would pose another severe risk to a fair and accurate count of Latinos in Census 2020. It would leave the Bureau with only half as much time to process raw data as it originally requested, critically impairing the completeness and accuracy of the resulting data. As early as May, top census officials confirmed that the agency could not meet the statutory deadlines for data delivery because of the pandemic. In addition, several former Census Bureau directors have stated that the agency will not be able to finish a credible, high-quality census on the timeline to which they are now beholden.

The Bureau’s compressed timeline raises several significant concerns about its ability to conduct operational components that are key to a complete and accurate Census 2020. Given that self-response rates in many areas with large concentrations of Latinos are lower than those for the overall population, the Bureau must be able to effectively reach and count Latinos during NRFU. However, it is unlikely to be able to do so under the new timeline as it also confronts high employee attrition rates, surges in COVID-19 infections in many parts of the country, natural disasters, including hurricanes and wildfires, and other challenges. The Bureau will also be required to rush other components of its operations, such as quality-check operations for NRFU, coverage improvement checks, and data processing, all of which lead up to the tabulation of the apportionment counts. The August 17 review of the Census 2020 Operational Plan Schedule omits any reference to the Count Review Operation (CRO) that was initially included as a critical step in data refinement. The CRO would allow state population experts to review counts of households, people, and group quarters to identify anomalies and unexpected results that could still be fixed before they were finalized. The apparent cancellation of CRO essentially cuts states out of the final review process for census data for the first time in decades.

At least two lawsuits are challenging the Administration’s efforts to curtail data collection and evaluation operations for Census 2020. Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC and MALDEF have brought a suit on behalf of membership organizations and Latino and Asian American voters. Another suit has been brought by several civil rights and civic organizations, together with Harris County, Texas; Kings County, Washington; and the cities of Los Angeles, Salinas, and San Jose.

We are continuing to ask Congress to extend the apportionment and redistricting data delivery deadlines to those initially requested by the Administration. We also hope that these provisions would allow career professional scientists at the Census Bureau to have enough time to produce accurate and complete data. 

Our advocacy has had some positive impact on the Bureau’s operational plan. When the Bureau announced that it intended to do a sixth mailing of a reminder postcard to households which had not responded to the 2020 Census, we urged it to include the paper questionnaire in that mailing as our research shows that a large share of Latinos prefers to respond by sending in a paper questionnaire. The Bureau will now send a seventh mailing with a questionnaire between late August and mid-September to certain households that have not yet responded. However, we have concerns about how effective this mailing will be given the shortened self-response period and problems with mail delivery. These concerns are exacerbated by the Bureau’s announcement that it will only accept paper questionnaires postmarked no later than September 30, and received no later than October 7.

A Third New Political Appointee Joins the Top Ranks of the Census Bureau

On August 17, the Census Bureau announced the appointment of Benjamin Overholt, Ph.D. as its Deputy Director for Data. Dr. Overholt is an Army veteran and previously served as a lead statistician in the Office of Enterprise Data and Analytics at the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), as well as a statistician in the voting section of the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice for over five years. Dr. Overholt becomes the third political appointee brought into the Census Bureau since late June (our June 30th Census 2020 Policy Update provides more information about the first two appointees). Appointments to newly-created top positions with undefined roles at this late point in the decennial enumeration are extremely unusual and therefore concerning, so NALEO Educational Fund will continue to monitor the work of the Bureau closely and urge congressional oversight to ensure that there is a fair and accurate count of all of our nation’s population in Census 2020. On August 19, the Secretary of Commerce’s Office of Inspector General requested detailed information from the Bureau regarding Dr. Overholt’s hiring and the creation of the Deputy Director of Data position at the agency.


With NRFU work now at its peak, hundreds of thousands of enumerators are out in the field working to collect responses. For their and all respondents’ safety, the Census Bureau has adopted a policy of providing personal protective equipment (PPE) to enumerators, requiring them to wear masks at all times while doing their work, and to maintain safe distances from others. Additionally, enumerators are instructed not to enter the homes of the people they are counting. Despite the Bureau’s efforts, at least one media report has documented the concerns of some respondents and enumerators about their safety. One former enumerator recently told NPR’s Hansi Lo Wang, “The whole safety thing was way down below the priority to get the job done,” and expressed concern over the Bureau’s failure to effectively train enumerators on what to do when they could not maintain distance or had to approach someone not wearing a mask.

Although the Bureau exceeded its goals for attracting applicants for temporary jobs, it has experienced elevated rates of attrition compared to a typical decennial census year. Many of those workers who went through an onboarding process early in 2020 were no longer willing to expose themselves to large numbers of strangers by the time field work started in tandem with peaks in COVID-19 infection rates. The Census Bureau has acknowledged this challenge, and Director Dillingham recently told Members of the House’s Committee on Oversight and Reform, “Unlike prior censuses, concern with the pandemic is estimated to increase the number of no shows to training sessions, as well as the number of employees who complete training but decline to show up for work.” Officials say that they are increasing pay rates and the number of job offers they make to attract and keep enough workers, but advocates are concerned that the Bureau is both short-staffed and shortchanging its training regimen to rush workers out into the field to meet its accelerated deadline for data collection.

Self-Response and Nonresponse Followup (NRFU)

NALEO Educational Fund continues to track census self-response rates both for the overall population and areas with large concentrations of Latinos. In addition, the Bureau has started to publish information about the total share of housing units “enumerated,” which captures the total share of housing units that have self-responded and the total share of housing units enumerated during NRFU. The Bureau’s reported self-response rates, NRFU enumeration rates, and total housing unit enumeration rates, which are provided at the national and state level daily, are found here, and the following sections also describe some limitations of the “enumeration” rates reported by the Bureau. As of August 31, the total share of housing units enumerated was 82.4 percent, with 64.9 percent having self-responded and 17.5 percent enumerated through NRFU.

Self-response: We continue to see several indicators that Latino self-response rates are lower than the national rate. For example, a larger share of households in tracts that received English-language census mailings have responded than the share of households in tracts that received bilingual English and Spanish mailings. Additionally, in census tracts in which Latinos are the most numerous population group, the average response rate is 48.1 percent, more than 16.8 percentage points below the national average.

Our internal analysis also reveals that as of August 31, 2020, on average, the higher the Latino share of a county’s population is, the lower its self-response rate. Thus, counties whose populations are less than 20 percent Latino tend to have notably higher census response rates than counties whose populations are majority-Latino, and counties whose populations are 75 percent or more Latino tend to be ones with the lowest self-response rates. It is important to note that self-response rates indicate only the rate of census participation of known households (addresses that are on the Census Bureau’s Master Address File); they do not affirm the comprehensiveness or accuracy of the information collected from participating households.

NRFU: While housing units enumerated in NRFU have contributed to the increase of the total enumerated housing unit share, states like New Mexico and Arizona with large Latino populations continue to have lower housing unit enumeration rates compared to other states. The number of housing units enumerated during NRFU includes all units where the Bureau has completed its casework. These completions can be accomplished in a variety of ways. For example, the Bureau considers a unit completed if it has verified that the unit is vacant or nonexistent. If the Bureau obtains information about a household by interviewing a neighbor or landlord, it also considers the housing unit completed and enumerated. In addition, the Bureau anticipates that it will enumerate at least 6.2 million households using federal administrative records, which often do not contain accurate or complete information about Latinos and their household members.

Participation in the census by a household through either self-response or a NRFU interview does not ensure that everyone residing in the household was included in the census questionnaire or the NRFU response by the household member. For example, analysis of the 2010 Census revealed that the majority of very young children not counted in that census lived in households that were in fact enumerated. All of the limitations discussed in “Self-response” and “NRFU” above should be taken into account when assessing the extent to which the Bureau’s enumeration data reflect the progress made in enumerating the nation’s population, particularly in areas with “hard-to-count” communities.


For more information about this Policy Update, or NALEO Educational Fund’s Census 2020 policy efforts, please contact Ms. Erin Hustings, Legislative Counsel at [email protected] or (202) 360-4154.

To receive updates and stay connected with NALEO Educational Fund’s ¡Hágase Contar! and ¡Hazme Contar! campaigns, you can join our subscriber list by texting “CENSUS” to 97779. For more information on how and when to fill out the 2020 Census or to report misinformation or disinformation, you can visit our website hagasecontar.org or call our national bilingual hotline at 877-EL-CENSO.