Census deadline: Courts wrangle on just when 2020 count is going to end

U.S. Census Director Steven Dillingham departs a census news conference to urge Arizonans to participate in the nation's once-a-decade population count Thursday, Sept. 17, 2020, in Phoenix. Ending the 2020 census at the end of September instead of the end of October, could cost Florida and Montana congressional seats and result in Texas, Florida, Arizona, Georgia, and North Carolina losing $500 million in federal funding for healthcare for its neediest residents. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, Pool)

HARLINGEN — Census 2020 ends counting on Wednesday — or maybe not.

U.S. Dist. Judge Lucy Koh of California’s Northern District issued a temporary restraining order against the Trump administration this month in a lawsuit filed by the National Urban League which seeks to force Census 2020 to revert to a previous plan to end the count Oct. 31.

The administration, which had scrapped its own extension in hopes of speeding up the final Census 2020 report, has appealed the order to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in California, and a ruling could come any time.

On Monday, officials working on the Texas census say a decision could extend the count for a week, two weeks or until the end of October.

“When we talk about the urgency, the census could end Sept. 30. It could end Oct. 7. It could end Oct. 19. We just don’t know yet, and that’s why I am reiterating the fact that we are really pushing Sept. 30,” Katie Martin Lightfoot with the Center for Public Policy Priorities and Texas Counts, said Monday.

“Once we get into October, it’s almost like a new adventure every day to see what the courts are able to do,” she added.

Seats up for grabs

Texas, where large portions of rural areas are deemed hard-to-count hotspots, made up ground thanks to enumerators going to homes in person. In fact, the state ranks 11th in the country in Non-Response Follow Up, called NRFU (pronounced nurr-fu).

Through Saturday, Texas has enumerated 98.2 percent of households, with the NRFU phase accounting for 36.1 percent of those. Some 62.1 percent of households self-responded, either online or by mailing in the census form.

After languishing around 40th in the nation in the self-response count, the NRFU phase of the count has boosted the state to 29th in the nation overall. In fact, the 98.2 percent total enumeration in Texas is above the national mark of 97.7 percent.

But there are big stakes still to play for in the estimated 200,000 Texas households which remain uncounted, said Lila Valencia, senior demographer with the Texas Demographic Center.

Valencia cited a study by Texas A&M which indicates the state would gain three congressional seats if Census 2020 gets a complete count in Texas. Congressional seats are apportioned nationwide using census data gained every 10 years.

“A significant undercount in Texas could take away one of those three congressional seats that we’ve been working with under the assumption that we’re projected to get,” Valencia said.

“That threshold is so low, it’s 200,000 people,” she added. “So right now, if this is where we would end in the next couple of days, then Texas would surely not gain those three full congressional seats but rather only about two of those.”

Instead, that seat would likely go to Arizona or Florida, she said.

Valley lagging

Total enumeration and self-response figures for Texas counties and cities are not yet available, although Valencia did say the Area Census Office for Cameron and Hidalgo was the fifth-lowest census office in the state in terms of completing enumeration.

She said reports on enumeration percentages in these offices are the “only information we have at the sub-state level right now.”

The Fort Bend ACO has only completed 87.5 percent of its enumeration workload, Laredo and El Paso stand at 93.1 percent, Lubbock is at 93.6 percent and the Hidalgo-Cameron ACO is 94.5.

“The field staff really have a lot of work remaining to do in these particular area census offices in the state of Texas,” Valencia said. “We know that the extension of that timeline will be critical in getting a more complete count of these areas.”

There are concerns that self-response rates, no doubt affected by COVID-19 and disruption caused by its attendant shutdowns and lockdowns, lag behind the rates recorded in the 2010 Census.

In Cameron County, the self-response rate of 51.4 percent for the current census trails the 56.4 percent rate of 2010.

Willacy (41.7 percent 2020; 50.6 percent 2010) and Hidalgo (53.5 percent 2020; 55.9 percent 2010) also show a worrisome trend in a region that historically has been undercounted.

Only Starr County, with a 47.8 percent self-response rate for Census 2020, is above the rate it reported in 2010 which was 45.5 percent.

rkelley@valleystar.com