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With Census Count Finishing Early, Fears of a Skewed Tally Rise

WASHINGTON — With the Trump administration’s decision to end the 2020 census count four weeks early, the Census Bureau now has to accomplish what officials have said it cannot do: accurately count the nation’s hardest-to-reach residents — nearly four of every 10 households — in just six weeks.

The result is both a logistical challenge of enormous proportions that must take place in the middle of a pandemic, and yet another political crisis for the census, historically a nonpartisan enterprise. The announcement, which came Monday evening, immediately generated sharp criticism.

On Tuesday, four former directors of the Census Bureau issued a statement warning that an earlier deadline would “result in seriously incomplete enumerations in many areas across our country,” and urged the administration to restore the lost weeks. The directors, who served under Democratic and Republican presidents, also urged Congress to assemble a trusted body of experts to develop standards for assessing the quality of the bureau’s population totals.

A similar plea was issued on Tuesday by an official network of agencies and nonprofit institutions that act as liaisons between the Census Bureau and state governments, helping them use population data to make policies.

“The credibility of the U.S. Census Bureau as the gold standard of data in the United States will be undermined by rushing an incomplete census count to meet deadlines,” a letter from the group stated.

The Census Bureau, which had earlier set and planned on an April 2021 deadline because of the coronavirus pandemic, said the change was needed to meet a federal deadline to get the numbers to President Trump by the end of the year. But Democratic lawmakers said the change reflected a deliberate attempt to undercount groups that tend to support their party.

Representative Steny H. Hoyer, Democrat of Maryland and the House majority leader, said on Tuesday that the change was an attempt to undercount poor communities with large numbers of immigrants and ethnic minorities and called the shortened schedule “yet another example of this administration’s blatant assault on our Constitution and our democracy.”

Federal law requires the Census Bureau to send population totals to the president by Dec. 31 of every census year. But the pandemic forced census officials in April to rewrite that timeline, pushing delivery of population totals to April 2021. The House approved the new deadline in May, but the Republican-controlled Senate has not followed suit, apparently at Mr. Trump’s behest.

The Constitution requires a count of all residents, but Mr. Trump has long made clear his desire to have population counts of citizens, not all residents. The president ordered the Census Bureau last month to produce a state-by-state count of undocumented immigrants so he could remove undocumented residents from census totals before he sends them to Congress for use in reapportioning the House. Several lawsuits have argued that would be unconstitutional.

An end-of-year delivery of population figures could provide a different avenue for Mr. Trump to remove undocumented immigrants — by not counting them in the first place. And delaying the totals until next year, as had been planned, would open the possibility that the totals would go to a new president and Congress.

Mr. Trump had tried earlier to achieve a similar objective by adding a question on citizenship to the census, but the Supreme Court rejected that effort last year after an extended legal battle.

Some of his most ardent Republican backers have supported his efforts aimed at not counting undocumented immigrants.

“Instead of working with Republicans to conduct credible oversight of 2020 census operations to ensure that all Americans are counted, Democrats are instead choosing to recklessly reduce census participation by resorting to lies and scare tactics,” Representative James R. Comer of Kentucky, a Republican who is the ranking member on the Oversight Committee, said in a recent statement.

But the campaign has placed some Republicans in a bind of sorts, since not counting undocumented immigrants in major Republican states like Texas and Florida probably would cause them to lose seats in the House in the next reapportionment.

“It’s sort of a Catch-22 because it would hurt Florida” to the extent that the state has undocumented immigrants, Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, said last week in an interview with MSNBC. “But at the same time, it dilutes the representation of people that are here legally and eligible to vote.”

The decision to shorten the counting schedule is a U-turn from the bureau’s statement months ago that the pandemic had made it necessary to ask for more time to complete the count. And census experts have said that shortening the time frame would wreak havoc with efforts to reach the very hardest-to-count households that have long been flagged as most likely to be missed in this year’s tally.

“This is a whole systemic attack on the census for political gain,” Julie Menin, the census director for New York City, said. “There’s an intentional attempt here to basically steal the census — to politicize this census to gain Republican seats across the country.”

So far this year, nearly 63 percent of households have voluntarily completed census surveys, either online, by mail or by telephone. Exact comparisons to the 2010 census are not possible because this year’s response deadline has not passed, but during that census the peak response rate was slightly higher, at 66.5 percent. In part because of population growth, however, the bureau this year has a considerably larger number of households to track down and count — 60 million, compared with 47 million in 2010.

The schedule change announced on Monday primarily affects the count of those 60 million households, but it also compresses the time left for tallying other groups, including homeless people and residents of nursing homes and dormitories.

All of those counts normally would be completed this month, and some well before that, but the bureau said in April that it was giving itself until Oct. 31 to complete the count.

The latest schedule change will move that deadline up by one month, to Sept. 30. The effect is to shorten to six weeks what had been a 10-week period reserved for completing the count, so that the data can be compiled and processed in time to deliver population totals by year’s end.

In recent months, however, some senior census officials have been clear that they believe that timeline is not feasible.

“We can’t do that anymore,” the census official leading field operations for the count, Tim Olson, told a Native American organization during a webinar in May. The associate director of the census, Albert E. Fontenot Jr., echoed that last month, saying “we are past the window of being able to get those counts” by year’s end.

Some state and local officials in areas with diverse, hard-to-count populations reacted with dismay.

“Oh God,” said Shameka S. Reynolds, the mayor of Lithonia, Ga. “Covid-19 is on the rise in our county, and it was already hard, to be honest with you, in previous years. It was hard trying to get people to get their mailings in and do it.”

Ms. Reynolds, who became mayor of the small, majority-Black suburban city this year, said about 44 percent of residents had responded to the census. “Now we no longer have until October, so it’s shrinking the time, and it’s kind of messing me up,” she said. “Now we’ve got to get creative.”

Lithonia is in DeKalb County, a sprawling expanse of 760,000 people east of Atlanta that is typical of the places that are hardest to get an accurate population count. The local chamber of commerce says it is the most ethnically diverse county in the Southeast, with at least 64 languages spoken.

The stakes are tremendous: The county’s chief executive, Michael Thurmond, has estimated that with a full count, DeKalb County could receive $1.8 billion per year in federal funding over the next 10 years. A serious undercount could leave billions of dollars on the table for public safety, public health, immunizations, Head Start programs, summer jobs programs and more.

“It’s just disheartening,” Larry Johnson, a DeKalb County commissioner, said on Tuesday. All three officials are Democrats.

The Census Bureau said in its announcement that it planned to mount “a robust field data collection operation” to meet the new deadline, and that it would be able to complete the 2020 census in a short time “without sacrificing completeness.” Beyond saying it would hire more people and give its army of door-knockers awards for extra work, it has offered few details of how it plans to meet the new goal.

But outside experts, including directors of past censuses, have said the bureau would be forced to use statistical techniques and notoriously inaccurate administrative records to make educated guesses about who lived where, especially in low-income areas.

Serious inaccuracies would not only affect numbers used to reapportion and redraw political districts, but also would skew the baseline that will be used to allot trillions of dollars in federal grants and other aid to the states until the next census in 2030.

Representative Carolyn B. Maloney of New York, the Democratic chairwoman of the House Oversight Committee that has jurisdiction over the census, said in a letter sent Tuesday to Steven Dillingham, the Census Bureau director, that she would summon career Census Bureau experts to testify about the impact of the change.

The controversy comes atop a series of political struggles over the census.

Less than a month after Mr. Trump was sworn in, Commerce Secretary Wilbur L. Ross Jr. began exploring the addition of a question on citizenship to the 2020 survey, an action that both outside critics and the bureau’s own experts warned would deter noncitizens and immigrants from responding. A court battle over the issue raged for two years before the Supreme Court invalidated the question last summer, calling its addition a pretext for some other unstated goal. The furor over Mr. Trump’s order not to count undocumented immigrants played out last month.

In July, the Trump administration also added two political appointees to Census Bureau positions just one level beneath that of the director, Mr. Dillingham, a huge departure for the bureau.

Outside experts who deal regularly with the Census Bureau say its operations have become progressively more opaque in recent months. Within the last day, the bureau removed from its main 2020 census website a link that directed outsiders to a sheaf of documents detailing its plans for the head count, although the same link remains on a less prominent page explaining the bureau’s response to the pandemic.

In the end, the success of the census will depend on millions of connections, made or missed. Less time will not help make them.

Roger Alexander, 32, a resident of Marietta, Ga., was in downtown Lithonia on Tuesday finishing up work on a hip-hop-themed video encouraging people to register and vote. Mr. Alexander said he had heard that the decennial count was being taken: “I feel like I’ve seen something about the census trying to get it together,” he said.

Mr. Alexander had not filled out a form yet but said that he would eventually do so — “if it is something convenient for me to do.”

Michael Wines reported from Washington, and Richard Fausset from Lithonia, Ga.