Pd Editorial: A census mess will hit California especially hard

The 2020 census will determine political power and allocation of federal resources for a decade. The federal government needs to get it right, but the census is shaping up to be a disaster.

Much of the problem is intentional. The Trump administration wants to include a citizenship question on the census that would suppress participation among immigrant communities, leading to an inaccurate count.

The U.S. Supreme Court will soon rule whether the question is legal. The administration's attorneys argued that racism and suppressing participation among groups that tend not to vote Republican had nothing to do with it.

That turns out not to be true.

Newly revealed documents from the hard drive of a deceased Republican strategist confirm the nefarious intent. Officials knew not only that a citizenship question could cause an undercount, but also that it would benefit conservatives. As one memo put it, a citizenship question would be “advantageous to Republicans and non-Hispanic whites.”

Whether this new evidence will sway Supreme Court justices is unknown. The court plans to rule soon so that the Census Bureau can get to work on printing forms and testing procedures.

The court should not allow the administration's deceit to prevail. The court has an opportunity to stand up for the principle that politicians should win elections based on the merit of their ideas, not how well they can game the system to exclude certain groups. If it does not, it will demonstrate that it is no longer an impartial adjudicator of law but one more partisan institution.

Meanwhile, the Government Accountability Office - the federal government's internal, nonpartisan watchdogs - found that the Census Bureau has not fully prepared for “high risk” challenges. Most frightening are cybersecurity and information technology vulnerabilities that “could adversely impact the cost, quality, schedule, and security of the enumeration.”

We doubt foreign hackers who are willing to interfere in elections would skip a juicy opportunity to muck up the census in ways that undermine its credibility or generate preferred results.

Meanwhile, the Census Bureau is not ramping up staffing and local offices like it has in the past. In 2010, it opened nearly 500 field offices. Next year there will only be half as many. Automation and digital tools might justify some reduction, but such a drastic cut suggests that it's just one more way that the administration is undermining accuracy.

And with the economy doing well and unemployment low, it remains to be seen if the Census Bureau will be able to recruit the tens of thousands of temporary workers it needs to reach every household that doesn't respond to mailed forms.

Given all those challenges, the Urban Institute estimates that the census could miss more than 4 million people, primarily among communities of color, children and immigrants. California has the greatest undercount risk and could lose up to 2% of its residents in the tally. Missing that many people could cost the state billions in federal spending and maybe even a U.S. representative and corresponding electoral vote.

There's little chance the Trump administration will change that, so it's up to the state, to advocacy groups and to individuals to spread the word that the census matters. Make sure every Californian is counted.

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